John Darnielle: Devil House | Macmillan; Tuesday, Jan. 25

When East Durham’s Golden Belt complex changed hands in 2017, most tenants were pushed out. Author and musician John Darnielle was the last one out of the building.

“I was in the building when we were all getting forced out,” Darnielle says in a phone interview that (delightfully) stretches nearly an hour past the allotted 20 minutes we’d scheduled. “They forced out the YouthBuild people, who gave mainly young Black men who were on the margins a chance to get their GED and to find work. I would see these guys every morning and then they all got forced out as well.”

As other nonprofits, artists, and businesses cleared out, Darnielle sat in his office writing a book about sacred spaces, changing towns, and the potential of youth. It was also about murder. There isn’t exactly a traditional bad guy in Devil House, his novel, which released on January 25. But that isn’t all that surprising if you know his work: Darnielle doesn’t often work in absolutes. The closest thing to an antagonist in Devil House is a coldhearted property developer. This, too, was tied to the setting he was writing from.

“There was a basketball court there with a backstop that had a big artwork about people who had died in the local neighborhood,” Darnielle says. “They knocked that whole thing down. This stuff was primary in my mind while I was writing.”

Like Darnielle’s earlier novels, 2014’s Wolf in White Van, which was nominated for a National Book Award for fiction, and 2017’s Universal Harvester, Devil House isn’t easy to categorize. It will appeal to fans of true crime and horror, but it also serves as a critique of violence-fueled content. It’s also artful, organized in a chiastic structure with a backward-looping narrative characteristic of many classical texts, but not inaccessible.

The novel is divided into seven mirrored sections that tell at least seven stories that are connected through true-crime writer Gage Chandler.

We first meet Chandler when he is stuck in a suburban house in Milpitas, California, in 2006. The house, once an X-rated video store, later became the scene of gruesome double murder. Chandler’s writing method is immersive. He does his best to become as physically close as he can to the scene of the crime and any connected ephemera or locations.

It’s a good system that allows Chandler to crank out a book every couple of years, keeping publishers happy and giving him enough money to begin the next round of research. But something is different about the Devil House. After having lived there for five years and re-creating the house to the state it was in when the murders took place, he still can’t write the right story.

While Darnielle was writing, he says, a nearby storefront with “Monster XXX” hand-painted on a window cemented the local porn-store setting. Durham, in fact, was almost the main setting of the story, but Darnielle decided he could do a better job drawing from a California town like the one he grew up in.

Durhamites need not worry though: the closing section, and its narrator, hits close to home.

Devil House’s seven sections work in opposing pairs. Sections one and seven let you see different sides of one story connected to Chandler, two and six another, and three and five one more. These varied perspectives and narrators give voice to Chandler’s subjects, his personal history, and his growing conviction around his work.

Chandler tries to navigate the world of true crime responsibly, telling the side of any given murder that a media blitz misses. In one of his books, he adds context that helps readers examine their preconceptions and remember the humanity behind a popular urban legend. But Darnielle asks questions that Chandler can’t, at least not if he wants to sell a book. He adds even more context that shows the consequences of Chandler’s work.

But Devil House isn’t just about the dangers of true crime.

“Telling any story at all has stakes, you know, whether it’s true or not,” Darnielle says.

True crime as a genre can be prone to mercenary sensationalism. Irresponsible podcasts, reporting, and books can hurt real people. But in Devil House, Darnielle is asking us to consider how uninterrogated consumption of stories about the worst of humanity—whether it be straight news, true crime, or horror movies—also affect us.

“What benefit was there to telling that story?” Darnielle says. “You know, if you hear something especially grim, who gets anything out of this?”

And in case you were curious: yes, Darnielle sees the paradox of writing a book that uses sensationalism to critique the consequences of sensationalism.

“Look, I’m writing this book,” he says. “I get to have my cake and eat it too when I do that, right? I get to be critical of Gage’s endeavors, and Gage gets to learn to be self-critical, but he still gets to tell some pretty gory stories.”

So, then, is Devil House a call to avoid exposure to horror? Well, no. Again, Darnielle doesn’t really work in absolutes.

“I’m not a moralist,” Darnielle says. “I’m not a crusader. But the ubiquity of everything is the thing. It’s not just pornography, it’s not just violence, everything is on the table. The notion of cultivating an intentional way of being becomes very difficult.”

This novel isn’t about the responsibility of true crime specifically or a call to avoid violence or pornography. It wants you to dig into the tension between headlines and humanity and ask yourself why you’re consuming what you are.

One tension Darnielle doesn’t touch on in the book—but thinks about in daily life—is the way this ubiquity accelerated with the internet. Darnielle can’t help but see the infinity of information his sons, now elementary school age, will soon have access to. His characters have to go to what today would be a lot of work to find violent imagery online. His sons won’t.

“As a parent of two boys, my question is, ‘When are my boys going to see that without me around, and what do I tell them about how to interpret what they see?’” Darnielle says.

Chandler works hard to humanize his subjects, and Darnielle works harder to show how Chandler falls short. You’ll hear from victims, murderers, and mothers of murderers that will force you to consider the tension between the facts of a case and the dignity of the people involved. Look for this especially in parts two and six.

“I think I get somewhere,” Darnielle says. “That’s my gauge for anything I write—music or books.”

Devil House doesn’t end with a clean victory over evil, partly because there’s very little straightforward evil. But it does end in a way that will surprise many readers.

“I’m hoping that people who know what I do, by now variably know that when I’m writing a book, it’s going to undo your expectations of it at some point,” Darnielle says, mentioning how quickly a reader realizes that his first novel, Wolf in White Van, is told backward. “But I mean, what I do involves different layers of reality, of narrative, and that’s kind of my beat at this point. It’s safe to say that whatever I write next will also have, you know—I’m unlikely to write a straight novel that just moves from point A to point B.”

When you do get to the end, keep in mind that Darnielle isn’t even advocating for Chandler’s decision when it comes to his story. He’s simply considering, and asking you to consider, the consequences of storytelling as historical record and shroud, violence and creation, freedom and exposure, craft and identity, titillation and truth. That’s all. 

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