June 6, 2022


John Darnielle’s ‘Devil House’

By Adam Rivett
Cover image of John Darnielle’s ‘Devil House’
The Mountain Goats frontman’s diffuse third novel interrogates the true crime craze

It was only a week after I finished reading John Darnielle’s wonderful new novel, Devil House (Scribe), strolling aimlessly around a local bookshop and aware that this review was late, that I saw the book, no longer a simple advance copy but out in the public, dead centre on a “New Releases” display, flanked on every side by eight other crime and genre novels. It was only then that the book’s various evasions and denials, its carefully organised series of expectations and refusals, made sense. Oh, I thought, this book is going to let some people down enormously.

Start with the book’s cover. Both Darnielle’s name and the book’s title are in a typeface strongly reminiscent of Lady Starlight (aka The Scorpions logo). It looks perfect for the side of a panel van, something stinking of pot that blasts deliriously monotonous ’70s hard rock 24/7. Between the book’s title and the author’s name sits a grand house. The top half of the cover is black, the outline of that Gothic mansion in white. In the lower half, the house throws a shadow, its turrets now appearing as teeth, the long shadow resembling a cackling monster’s face ready to devour.

Covers can change from country to country and from reprint to reprint, but consider this title and cover, and the book’s placement in this display in this particular bookshop in this particular moment in human history, as it appears to a hypothetical book buyer in late April, 2022. Expectations are set.

Devil House is the story of a murder, and the man tasked with writing about that murder. At the novel’s centre is Gage Chandler, a crime writer with a string of minor successes and failed film adaptations, who moves to the site of an infamous murder – an abandoned porn outlet in an industrial part of town, subsequently nicknamed “Devil House” – in the hope of not just writing about or even “solving” the story, but absorbing the trauma of the community, the very particular textures and terrors of place. Like Darnielle’s previous novel – the brilliant Universal Harvester – it’s a book with a purposefully broken narrative spine, and an ever-increasing narrative restlessness that undercuts certainty and piles up questions and doubts where most writers would seek to narrow the focus.

Like both Harvester and Darnielle’s debut novel Wolf in White Van, it is a book about a kind of dreaming, among a quiet lost community of the few. In Wolf, the reader’s focus was singular: the broken mind of narrator Sean Phillips. But when I revisited Wolf after reading Devil House, that voice wore me down with its manias and its raving – it was clear that Darnielle needs the outside world in his books for variety, for relief. But there’s another change in approach after Wolf, a shift in temperament that starts to turn away, elide, restrain itself. Even lonelier in spirit than the RPG solitude of Wolf, Devil House shares with Universal Harvester a sense of small-town isolation: young people lost in the blank interim after school but before the jump into adulthood; adults who find themselves deep into middle age and unable to make the shift into a new life, still weighed down by past traumas; the gauzy fantasies of medieval roleplay and VHS rentals, be they porn or a crappy thriller. These are distinctly pre-digital daydreams, leaning heavily on 20th century forms of escape – the arrival of the internet in Universal Harvester’s final section feels positively intrusive.

What Darnielle understands is the transportation of a mania, the near-comfort of a distorted view. In Wolf, the sickness is entirely self-circumscribed, but the turn in Harvester is towards something crueller and more inexplicable: a pain originating in childhood that infects adults, that hurts and hurts others in turn – a succession plan of pain. In Devil House it’s even harder to reconcile the murders and losses suffered by the novel’s collection of dreamers and mourners. Starting with Gage, we cycle through voices that ostensibly know each other yet seem isolated and incapable of connection. What if, the novel asks, this gathering of information and testimony wasn’t the slow procession towards an answer, but a harrowing trudge through the inexplicable and contradictory? Balanced against this bleakness is the old Jean Renoir humanist maxim, which sits with Midwestern stoicism behind all of Darnielle’s prose: Everyone has their reason.

It’s seemingly obligatory in any review of Darnielle’s fiction to mention that he is the lead singer and guitarist of cult indie band The Mountain Goats While not quite the fanatic of the kind the band tends to gather around them, I’ve enjoyed much of their music over the years, and find cherishable in both Darnielle’s music and his novels a consistent mood and aesthetic, a tenderness and empathy balanced against inescapable darker shades. In his songwriting, Darnielle consistently turns towards portraiture, a near-rebellious act for an artform usually associated with the forever-asserting self, the “I” sitting stubbornly at the centre of so many popular songs. A similar outward-looking spirit motivates Devil House. In the novel’s most resonant chapter, which takes the form of a long letter from the mother of a victim to Chandler, both she and the novel address what so much writing in the crime genre ignores or trivialises: the bodies left behind and the people they once were, only truly known and understood by families and loved ones.

Genre insists upon shape, and a puzzle demands resolution. The bizarre video inserts at the centre of Universal Harvester – suggestive of a Ring-like phenomena – ultimately revealed themselves as something harder, meaner and more human. I won’t divulge what transpires in the final chapters of Devil House (heaven forfend that a novel marketed as a thriller could exist to do more than execute a plot twist), but anyone familiar with Darnielle’s earlier work won’t be surprised at the unexpected turn it takes. Like the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s, from which the novel clearly draws, there’s an initial burst of potential phantasmagoria that steadily diminishes into the humble and the humdrum. Darnielle’s work is all empty fields, abandoned factories and the spaces between ordinary people. If Devil House lacks Universal Harvester’s formal perfection and hard centre of irresolvable mystery, its expansion of that novel’s sensibility into an interrogation of the true crime craze and a longer, more wandering collection of voices pays off in its own diffuse way. The novel’s length is almost demanded by the material, and its philosophical refusal to keep the horror to a neat word limit and a snappy conclusion. The focus remains on the bodies, and the complex lives that once animated them, long after the story has moved on.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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