John Darnielle launches his novels from the margins of American life. They are solitary books, and they always reach me.
Darnielle is best known as the singer-songwriter of indie band The Mountain Goats, which has been around since the mid-90s. Since 2008, he has also released fiction. Silently, as if slipping between cat’s paws, he became, as a novelist, inignorable.
His third novel, “Devil House”, is terrific: confident, frightening, a powerful and moving page-turner. I had no idea where this was going, in the best possible way.
“Devil House” is about a real criminal who moves into a house in Milpitas, California, where two notorious and, it is said, satanic murders took place in the late 1980s. The suspects were disgruntled teenagers, all as they were in a 1981 Milpitas murder and cover-up that served as fodder for the terrifying and powerful film “River’s Edge” (1987).
What happens next in “Devil House” is complicated, and I want to be careful not to say too much. Darnielle’s storylines are a sore point for me.
When I reviewed his novel “Wolf in White Van” in 2014, I printed a major spoiler – I foolishly thought that was not the case – and was depressed for a long time.
The name of the author of “Devil House” is Gage Chandler. It’s an arrogant name that suits his books – which are available at airports – if not quite his essence. He’s self-aware enough to know that by telling the kind of stories he’s telling, he’s sizzling in his own ethical grease.
Like Joan Didion, he knows he’s always selling someone. Like Janet Malcolm, he feels what he is doing is morally indefensible. Maybe with this new book, Chandler can right some wrongs. Perhaps the novel we are reading is a desperate rearguard action to hold a soul in place.
“Devil House” deals with the nature of detective writing, tabloids and the like. “What happens when someone tells a story that contains real people? writes Darnielle. “What becomes of history? what happens to the cashier; what happens to people?
But that’s perhaps the least interesting thing about it.
The thing about Darnielle’s writing, in all its forms, is this: If you’re that outcast kid who draws a pentagram on the last page of your three-ring binder in algebra class, not because you want to drink someone’s blood, but because you think it’s cool sees you.
His novels are in close contact with the alternative cultural universes of fantasy, the occult and science fiction, but they do not resemble genre fiction. They are terrestrial and fly low to the ground. They speak frankly and are not in a hurry.
They speak largely of the desolation and pain heaped upon the runts of life’s litter, youngsters who barely stand a chance. They seek escape in video games, in heavy metal, in monster movies, in an embrace of myth and legend.
“You learn to find,” writes Darnielle, “the stories you need.”
The house Chandler moves into has a sordid history. It was a soda store, hardware store, and newsstand before it became a porn store, with a large sign outside that read “Monster Adult X”, so truckers can see it from the freeway .
The owner of the porn store, tired of the rent hikes, abandoned the place, leaving the stock intact: VHS tapes, vibrators, viewing booths, inhalants. Some teenagers make it their clubhouse. Bored, they start redecorating. They are very good artists, and they get carried away.
When they’re done, the place looks like an exploded Marilyn Manson video set. There’s broken glass, animal bones, graffiti, elaborate effigies, video art, and other black touches.
Everything was fried like in a goblin’s frying pan. The result is bad, in every sense of the word. The kids take a clumsy, almost Luciferian pride in it.
One day, the owner and a real estate developer arrive. “No matter who you are,” Darnielle writes, “you always notice how adults destroy everything as soon as they show up on the scene.”
The two are dispatched, horribly, with a huge sword. Incredibly, no killer is caught. It’s pre-internet, and the murders take on the quality of a myth. There are rumors of “corpses atop a pornographic pyre, cryptograms in graffiti, specter of satanic adolescent rites”.
Chandler begins his reporting about two decades after the murders, hoping to glean some clarity from the “muddy beginnings in which legends are shaped.” He is methodical, obsessive. It relies on eBay listings, which have become a happy hunting ground for crime fetishists.
Chandler tells the stories of these children. He reunites with a childhood friend. There are plenty of subtle movies on the horizon.
Chandler dwells at length on one of his early books, ‘The White Witch of Morro Bay,’ about a young schoolteacher who murdered two students who broke into her apartment, stabbing one of them 37 times with an oyster knife. He receives a letter from the mother of one of the boys who was killed, and it affects him deeply – it’s a blow below the waterline.
“By what inevitable degrees,” Stanley Elkin asked in “The Dick Gibson Show,” his 1971 novel, “does the curvature become the tilt, the tilt of the trend, the tilt of the trend, the inclination of disposition, the disposition of fate?”
It’s a restatement of one of the issues that drives “Devil House.” He is never quite the book you think it is. It’s better.
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