Murder and Mythmaking: John Darnielle’s Devil House

Real horror is what waits for us in the hospital, the viewing, the doctor’s office, the police station. The genre we call horror is the thing we’ve created to cope with the real shit. John Darnielle works in real horror. In his books he’s used the conventions of genre – whether gaming manuals (Wolf in White Van) or Midwestern folk horror (Universal Harvester) as a lens to look at the horror that waits for us just under the thin shell of our lives.

Now, with Devil House, he’s written a book that is a gripping true crime novel, a darkly gleeful romp through the tropes of true crime as a genre, and an increasingly painful series of questions about what it costs to make art from someone else’s life and death.

Gage Chandler is a true crime writer. He has a Method of getting as close as possible to the feeling of a time and place where a murder took place, in order to empathize his way into the minds of victims and killers in order to tell “the real story”. The angle that sets him apart within the genre is a hyper-locality: he creates the town, the school, the last trip to the grocery store before Everything Changed Forever, the joy to be found in a commute home from work, the exact layout of a victim’s apartment, the fast food joint where another victim worked night shift. Gage Chandler traffics in the kind of detail that will put his reader behind a killer’s eyes, then force the reader to see life through the victim’s on the next page. At its best, his intent is to implicate his readers and humanize everyone involved in each case, and if you’re thinking that might be part of what Devil House does, well, yes.

Gage’s first big hit, the one that was adapted into a movie, was about his hometown, and he’s been chasing that kind of intimacy in every project since. When his editor calls and tells him there’s a house up for sale—a house that used to be a porn shop, that is also the site of multiple murders that might have been an initiation ritual into a teen satanic cult—Gage doesn’t have to think too long before he calls the real estate agent. Isn’t this the purest expression of his Method?

But once he’s moved into the house, we see that his Method is more like conjuring ghosts than anything else:

I closed my eyes and bent down, and I began to inhale deeply through my nose. Any reasonable person, looking through the window at that moment, would have come away thinking they’d seen an idiot. I felt like one, standing there bent at the waist, sniffing at the bare floor of my own house, trying to see if I could pick up the ancient scent of some teenagers’ unwashed clothes: to regenerate, in my mind’s eye, a place whose subsequent buyers had spared little expense erasing all traces of who had lived there and what had happened to them. But I’m a professional. I don’t care if I feel like an idiot. It’s kind of an item of faith with me that my feelings aren’t important when I’m working.

And so, venturing down interior pathways that have grown familiar to me, I smelled stale sweat, and cigarette smoke. I smelled cheap used paperback books and the baked-earth smell marijuana had before it became big business. I smelled bleach: they’d never wash that scent out of this place. And then something new and unwelcome got in the way. Berries. There was another air freshener in here, one I hadn’t noticed, something New Visions had hidden in a closet someplace.

What follows is a nesting doll of a book. Darnielle gives us chapters from Gage’s life as he gets to work in his new home, chapters from the book as he writes it, sections from his previous book, The White Witch of Morro Bay, responses to that book, and even detours into Medieval storytelling. Each section mirrors what came before, offering new angles on the murders and on Gage’s own life; each time the book hit what I thought was a peak, Darnielle used the next chapter to turn that peak inside out.

The crime at the center of the book feeds perfectly into the Satanic Panic of the ’80s. A Scrooge-like local landlord brings an eager young wannabe real estate mogul to see one of her properties (a porno shop) and things go violently awry. The murder, which may have been a Satanic rite, turns the shop into a horrific local legend known as Devil House.

Except…that might not be what happened at all.

***

How did any of us make it through high school? Myself, I was straight-edge, no driver’s license, an encyclopedic knowledge of STDs and a healthy fear of getting knocked up always at the ready. Cautious. I spent so much time planning for what would come next that I felt guilty every time I watched Star Wars and Yoda told Luke: “All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hm.”

And yet. I was in danger, a lot. I almost died a few times, in interesting ways. Found myself in uncomfortable situations with grown-ass men. Found myself in terrifying situations with grown-ass men. Drugs were an ambient hum, depression was wallpaper, and violence could come from anywhere, at any time.

Maybe that’s why John Darnielle’s work appeals to me? He understands that even a life that looks safe and ordinary from the outside can have sea monsters waiting in the corners of the map, and he also understands that the sea monsters probably have their own stories where they’re not monsters at all. Who’s the monster, here, anyway? The local teens, the terrible landlord, the uncaring society, abusive parents? Is Gage himself the monster, for taking people’s real-life pain and turning it into a story to be consumed by people who want to feel safer in their own lives? Certainly, as he digs into his time at Devil House, his behavior becomes increasingly monstrous:

…by this time I had started in on the walls inside Devil House, which, owing to the nature of walls and their ubiquity in the visual field, were going to require the utmost attention to detail. The amount of guesswork needed to get it right irritated me; I knew that at some point in the 1980s, possibly especially in California, the chemical composition of spray paint had been altered to keep kids from huffing it. When I started replicating the photographs, would the drip come out wrong? It’s an affectation, I know; I don’t include any of my restagings in the books I write. But they are important to me, and the idea that a detail isn’t right can fester in my brain like an unbidden thought.

Yes, this is a successful adult who’s annoyed that the less-toxic paint might not be authentic enough for his attempt to recreate a murder site. But Gage is also thinking deeply and constantly about how to bring murder victims back to life, to ensure they’re never forgotten. Are any of them monsters, or just humans who stumble into a story too large and haunted to escape?

As in his previous books, Darnielle has a beautiful handle on the fluidity of the young adult brain, the way reality and fantasy flow together, the way mythmaking can be second nature at that age, and the way fiction infuses and shapes people’s reality (“The brochure had a detailed map showing Kenyon College as it related to nearby cities and counties. Derrick couldn’t stop studying it. Some of the best science fiction books, he’d found, feature maps of imaginary terrain on their opening pages. He always found himself going back to the map as he read through them, trying to situate himself within the fictional space again and again, until it seemed as real as the outside world.”) He’s also willing to treat what I think of as Teen Expressionism with utter seriousness. One of my favorite examples is in his meticulous descriptions of Devil House, formerly known as Monster Adult X. Darnielle has created teen artists who use the store’s walls and video booths as a canvas. The kids would take it seriously, thus Darnielle takes it seriously, and when he sends Gage into the store years later, the seasoned true crime writer treats the store like an art gallery:

The first solo booth, just to the right of the arcade entrance, had had two carvings, both predating Devil House; neither would have made his honorable mentions list. One looked like an eyeball but was probably supposed to be a breast. The other was unmistakably a penis drawn by a person whose feeling for the organ was one part wonder to two parts revulsion; none of the later work done to improve it could wholly mask the veins that had once popped out from under its skin, or the sinewy detail of the frenulum.

Still, one evidentiary photograph shows how a later-arriving artist had tried to improve upon it, doing his level best to transform the glans into the head of a sea serpent that looked like one of the Godzilla knockoffs who used to show up on late-night TV. The batwing-like ears jutting out from it are stark, and striking; the urethral meatus is now only one pupil among three gazing out from carefully rounded, menacing eyes.

Often there were lines so concise and elegant I had to stop everything and write them down, for instance:

“I was guessing, I think fairly, that Evelyn Gates would have spared little effort in cutting corners.”

and

“…our house grew chaotic; not all houses are built to protect the people inside them.”

Just, goddamn.

Darnielle is, I think, one of our best writers on class and on the way this country has failed its poor. (Like how this country, um, has “poor”.) He also has the deep understanding of how this country vilifies its children that perhaps only an aging metalhead or goth could have. One of the reasons I love his work is that it reassures me that I wasn’t imagining any of it. I remember the looks I used to get walking into Walmart, waiting until their rock-bottom sales on Halloween decorations or Christmas candy so I could make the most of my tiny goddamn bank account. I remember the fear I used to feel walking to work when cars would slow down so the men inside could yell at me—not checking to see if I was working working, those interactions I could handle—I mean good old-fashioned terrifying Fuck with the Freak. That feeling of being trapped by your youth, and by the society that’s pressing you down no matter how hard you work, the way you want to explode out of your circumstances. To Get Out. To Show Them All. Darnielle’s able to excavate the ways that terrible pressure can result in violence even from the most good-hearted people, and he’s able to show that even the most mean-hearted people deserve a measure of empathy.

That’s the heart of the book. The actual radical empathy that has to be extended to people who’ve fallen through the cracks in society that no one bothers to pave over; to a man who would excavate—and maybe victimize?—the subjects of the true crime novel he’s writing; the mother of a boy who was murdered; the boy who wasn’t protected by his mother; the kids who might be killers; the hapless, overreaching cokehead who became a victim. Killers, and killed. People who looked the other way. Patsys.

Even the coldhearted bitch of a landlord gets a few drops of empathy.

***

There’s a particularly great Reading Rainbow episode where one of the book-recommending kids at the end enthuses about a picture book that you can read one way, and then flip upside down and re-read the other way; the art is designed so each inverted image tells a new story. The kid, who is New York all over, is excited because, and I quote, “it’s like getting two books in one!”—he knows a deal when he sees it. I think about this kid a lot. He came to mind again while reading Devil House—and I’m assuming you can see where this is going. Are you getting a true crime book? Yes. Are you getting a careful, relentless, spiraling critique of the book you’re reading, and the genre as a whole? YES. Are you also getting to hear a writer ask some serious questions about Writing Itself, and what it means to take living people and contort them into fiction?

Unfortunately for me and my ability to sleep at night, you sure are.

If you look at this book’s cover you’ll see not a “house” but something more like a castle. The theme of mythmaking and castles run through the book. I’ve been doing a little bit of my own mythmaking. Everything I’ve said in this essay is true, and yet this was only a tiny piece of my youth. The image I created of myself is a projection of a certain part of my life, just as, if you read more of my writing on this and other sites, you’ll piece a pretty clear, not-entirely-accurate image of me together. If you read my fiction, you’ll get a different idea of me. (The version of me in my fiction is truer than anything I’ve written on this site, and, probably, truer than the version of me who’s currently typing these words.) By writing a true crime novel, Gage is turning humans into myths. All writers and artists do, when they plumb their lives for content as most of us do, is turn real life into a myth. One of the most beautiful elements of Devil House is that Darnielle runs that thread of mythmaking, medieval pageantry, ghost stories, haunted houses, through every other more “realistic” section.

But if you think about it most houses are haunted. Most apartments. Wherever you’re reading this right now, you’re most likely on land that was won with blood, in a building made by someone who wasn’t paid enough, if at all. (My city, that I love with a fervor that would put Matt Murdock to shame? Most of the landmarks I love were built over graveyards; many have the bones of laborers in their foundations. I can’t help loving those buildings, but I feel it’s only polite to acknowledge the cost I can never repay.) John Darnielle has given us a group of teens who decide to impose a haunting on an innocuous building—a myth so big and scary it would hold the adults at bay. When real horror bursts through the shell of reality around the kids, the building’s fate is sealed—it’s truly a haunted house now, and that haunting touches the town around it and every person whose life was broken by what happened there. Is Gage’s work exorcising the site, or adding a new round of ghosts? Can art create meaning from meaningless acts?

Devil House is available now from MCD

The part Leah Schnelbach is hesitant to say is that this book made them cry. Like a lot. Come make myths with them on Twitter!

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