It’s changed since you were here, or else it hasn’t
It was special, it was deadly
It was ours and then it wasn’t
– The Mountain Goats
By Ben H.
An entertaining book full of mystery, empathy, and suspense, Devil House is also a thoughtful examination of authorial responsibility. John Darnielle excels at building meaning by layering stories. As the frontman of The Mountain Goats, he’s a storytelling genius. He’s magical and efficient. He’s an all-time great songwriter.
Speaking of authorial responsibility, I should state upfront that I think Darnielle is a better songwriter than he is novelist. Devil House would have benefited from heavy editing. That being said, I like the book and I consider my responsibility as the author of this review now satisfied.
Devil House is the story of true crime writer Gage Chandler. Chandler fictionalizes true stories for money, the job of all novelists, really, but he isn’t Thomas Wolfe writing about Asheville. Chandler writes the new Hulu documentary about a mother who poisoned her kids or a couple who killed boarders and buried them under the hyacinths. Chandler writes books that are adapted for the small screen and become the must watch shows of the week. He approaches the gruesome devil house murders of Evelyn Gates (the greedy landlord) and Marc Buckler (the sleezy real estate mogul wannabe) the same way he approached previous cases, but things get complicated.
The titular house is the center of the novel and serves as a cipher for all the characters. Chandler, Buckler, Gates, Seth, Alex, and Derrick all revolve around its foundations in one way or another. It’s Chandler’s next project; it’s work. Buckler and Gates see it as an asset or potential asset. High school students Derrick, Seth, and Alex use the abandoned house as a hideout. They make it a castle. It’s a safe place to sleep at night. Many of the highlights of the book occur when Chandler describes the boys and their relationship with the house.
Chandler’s methods are extreme. He’s the Daniel Day Lewis of true crime writers. Joaquin Phoenix ain’t got nothing on Gage Chandler. He lives where the crimes were committed (he literally moves into the building known as devil house). He holds items held by those involved as if they were talismans. He haunts eBay looking for paraphernalia tangentially connected to the case. He becomes the victims. He becomes the murderer. Chandler recreates lives based on evidence left behind. He imagines conversations and relationships based on the contents of a junk drawer. He establishes character and personality based on notebooks full of doodles. He gives his characters depth. He uses empathy to create details and narratives for his characters; but has he cold-heartedly monetized empathy?
While living in devil house, an old case that involves the murder of two students by their high school teacher, which Chandler turned into the book The White Witch of Morro Bay, comes back to haunt him. He receives a devastating letter from someone questioning his depiction of a certain character. Chandler prides himself on being fair to his characters, but how can you be fair to someone’s son when to you they are just a character you have partially fleshed out? His resolve shaken, he questions his methods and his career.
For those thinking that what this book sounds like it needs is a medieval section in middle English, you’re in luck! For me, this strange interlude emphasized the depth of the world-building that Derrick, Seth, and Alex were doing. It’s like I always say, “whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.” I also always say that if you can cut the section in middle English from the book you wrote in 2022, you should.
As in Wolf in White Van, Darnielle moves back and forth in time, weaving patterns and stacking stories. The payoff is well worth it. I reread the reveal a couple of times because it was so satisfying. The obvious takeaway for me was a critique of true crime books, shows, and movies. Devil House also offers a commentary on how society treats its vulnerable members. Whatever meanings you find inside Devil House, I think you’ll enjoy exploring most of its pages.
Harbor me when I’m hungry
Harbor me when I’m hunted
– The Mountain Goats
Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).