A true crime writer struggles with his responsibility to the victims in 'Devil House'
John Darnielle has made a career — well, two: he is both a National Book Award-nominated novelist and the lead singer-songwriter of a beloved indie band called the Mountain Goats — out of writing frankly about darkness. His most famous song's most famous line is I'm going to make it through this year if it kills me. His first two novels, Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester, have protagonists who are white-knuckling their way through misery; Carmen María Machado wrote that the latter traces "the dimensions of human loneliness and grief."
In his third book, Devil House, Darnielle shifts his vantage point on suffering without losing or lessening his willingness to confront it. His main character, Gage Chandler, is, like Darnielle himself, a chronicler of pain. But unlike his creator, who has spoken publicly about a past that includes abuse, self-harm, and troubles with drugs, Gage seems to have little to no personal experience with his material. He is a true-crime writer with an extremely active imagination and a deep sense of ethics. He takes pride in working thoroughly and methodically, and in trying, as he puts it, to "honor the dead in my books." Darnielle casts no doubt on Gage's efforts or intentions: he is doing the best he could possibly do, and yet, over the course of the novel, he realizes that the very nature of his profession means he is doomed to fail.
At Devil House's start, Gage's literary agent pitches him a project: there's a house on the market in Milpitas, Calif., where a grisly, still-unsolved double murder took place. How about Gage buys the house and writes about the killings? Gage is intrigued by coverage of the crime, which involved "dead bodies atop a pyre of pornography, cryptograms in graffiti, the specter of teenage Satanic rites." Soon enough, he's in the house, neck-deep in an idiosyncratic and imaginative research process, which Darnielle evokes exceptionally well. It helps that his prose is assertively, beautifully wrought: at one point, Gage refers to a smell as "dense [and] big-elbowed," which is both an excellent description in its own right and a very good characterization of Darnielle's style. It is very challenging to write compellingly about research; Darnielle pulls it off here, both because his sentences are so good and because Gage has such strong opinions about his craft.
Gage is devoted to his odd research method. He cares even more, though, about his creed, which any true-crime fan (looking at you, Murderinos) should spend some time considering. He cannot stand stories in which, as a colleague of his once put it to him, "There's the hero, and then there's his victims."
He loathes moralizing questions, which he dismisses as "ghost stories masquerading as concern." He contextualizes everything. He aligns himself with the powerless and overlooked.
It often seems that he has taken a true-crime writer's Hippocratic Oath: first, do no more harm than has already been done. At Devil House, he begins to wonder if this is possible. He cannot feel much for the murder victims, a predatory slumlord and an eager property developer: in their lives, they did too much harm for Gage's taste. (It is impossible to go into further detail about the novel's anti-landlord sentiment without spoilers; suffice to say that it is very present.) Instead, he sympathizes with the troubled, vulnerable teens who seem likely to have been the murderers; he — that is, Darnielle, ventriloquizing Gage — writes about them evocatively and well, but cannot bring himself to draw any conclusions about them, except that they needed shelter and help. Not exactly a compelling ending to a true-crime book, but Gage balks at writing anything else.
As Gage struggles, Devil House fragments. Darnielle begins switching between Gage's debut book, The White Witch of Morro Bay, and his work-in-progress; he makes an odd foray into fake Arthurian myth, which seems inexplicable until the novel's end coalesces around the extended metaphor of defending one's castles; and, very compellingly, he presents the whole text of an anguished letter Gage gets from one of the White Witch's murder victims' mothers.
All this shifting and breaking of narrative can be disorienting; the letter is emotionally wrenching. As a result, Devil House becomes progressively less enjoyable to read — which is, of course, Darnielle's point. Gage's method is letting him down; so is his creed. He is rapidly losing the ability to persuade himself that writing ethical true crime is possible. Although he can still imagine himself into his story, he can no longer imagine telling it. Or he can't imagine telling it and not hating himself afterward.
Gage never suffers like his subjects or their families did. Devil House is not a novel about karma or comeuppance. It is a portrait — sometimes direct, sometimes refracted — of a man realizing that his career, combined with his powerful imagination, has taken him far from his morals. In many such narratives, the career wins. Refreshingly, in Devil House, the morals do.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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