John Darnielle Takes on the Horrors of True Crime in 'Devil House'

His latest novel wrestles with the sins of certain types of storytelling

Abby Kagan/Farrar, Straus and Giroux/MCD Books
R.E. Hawley
True Crime

Derrick Hall is about as well-adjusted as a teenager can be: affable, responsible, even willing to indulge his parents’ sentimentality as the fall of his senior year flashes by. He even has a part-time job (albeit a secret one working the cash register at the local porn store). It’s 1986 in Milpitas, California, and Derrick’s interactions with his friends and classmates seem to crackle with the weight of a new disequilibrium — adulthood, or something close to it, lingers on the horizon, rendering every bike ride home along the scenic route or whispered conversation in the back of Spanish class oddly bittersweet. Derrick is applying to colleges — his mother keeps leaving brochures out on the kitchen table, carefully arranging them to look casually placed — but his childhood buddy Seth is facing a less certain future: he’s a good kid, bright and creative, but has never been able to apply himself in school.

When the porn store shuts down, Derrick invites Seth to check out the abandoned storefront. Seth’s imagination begins to run wild, cycling through the possibilities made tangible by a secret space of their own, beyond the province of adult eyes. In a blur of long afternoons and sleepless nights, Derrick and Seth transform the shop into a combination of clubhouse and installation art project alongside their friends Alex and Angela. The newly decorated store is an ode to the obscene and occult: an angel made of raunchy VHS covers hangs from the ceiling; the roof is covered with a spray-painted mural of a giant ghoul; witches and wizards adorn the walls of the video booth arcade in the back. It’s a space the teenagers can call their own while basking in the dimming glow of their adolescence. It’s also the place where one of them will commit a grisly double murder.

The porn store teens are the emotional heart of Devil House, John Darnielle’s third novel, out January 25, but they’re ultimately characters in someone else’s story. Gage Chandler, a moderately successful true-crime writer and native of central California, is our protagonist. Decades after the murders, he’s moved into the remains of the porn store, newly restored back into a two-bedroom house, while working on a book about what happened there in 1986. He signs on to the project knowing little more than can be gleaned from a newspaper clipping emailed to him by his agent — “dead bodies atop a pyre of pornography, cryptograms in graffiti, the specter of teenage Satanic rites jolting a sleepy old town awake.” Gage’s isn’t new to Satanic themes: his first book, The White Witch of Morro Bay, concerned Diana Crane, a schoolteacher convicted in the 1970s of a double murder thought to be associated with witchcraft. His investigative process is as immersive as it is thorough; he rips out the carpet and replaces it with something more period-specific, breaks bottles in the front yard to mimic the broken glass that police found on the scene that day. But as he delves into the research process, gathering his primary and secondary sources, cracks in Gage’s resolve become apparent as he begins to wrestle with the ethical implications of his work.

While Darnielle is a successful author in his own right — his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2014 — most people familiar with his name will recognize him as the songwriter and frontman of The Mountain Goats. As a lyricist, Darnielle is famous for crafting intricate, narratively rich character portraits, like short stories set to music. His best work renders vividly those overlooked by society; young people who are poor, addicted, or traumatized, often angry, sometimes euphoric, and nearly always trying their hardest just to get by. Many of Darnielle’s outsiders find comfort in the gothic, Satanic, or occult, particularly those who’ve been harmed or rejected by mainstream institutions (per 2012’s “Cry for Judas,” “Unfurl the black velvet altar cloth, draw a white chalk Baphomet/ Mistreat your altar boys long enough and this is what you get.”)

Darnielle’s literary work finds inspiration in similar territory. Wolf in White Van’s protagonist, Sean, is falsely accused of psychically manipulating teenagers into harming themselves in a Judas Priest-like scenario, while his second novel, Universal Harvester, concerns a video rental store at which tapes have been mysteriously spliced with cryptic, vaguely horrific clips. But more than anything, these books are united by the theme of personal myth-making: the stories we tell ourselves to make the unbearable a bit less painful. So too for Darnielle’s latest protagonist, who has dedicated his life to storytelling — dissecting the ghastly myths that radiate out from sensationalized crime stories. These are, in his words, “the crimes people tell stories about, and the secret ones those stories seek to conceal”; up until now, he’s happily played the role of debunker, cutting through the gauze of urban legend to reveal what he believes to be the real people and stories beneath. Until things go wrong.

As a lyricist, Darnielle is famous for crafting intricate, narratively rich character portraits, like short stories set to music.

Devil House is a metafictional critique of the true-crime genre whose central question — “What happens when somebody tells a story that has real people in it? What happens to the story; what happens to the teller; what happens to the people?” — contends with the nature of storytelling itself. It’s an ambitiously experimental work of refraction: The question of what precisely it is you’re reading lingers at various points, and no sooner do you find your bearing within the text than Darnielle re-angles the mirrors once again, reorienting everything that has come before. After a formally conventional if unsettling opening section narrated by Gage, the novel splits wide open into a series of paired sections, each one in the first half corresponding to one in the back half that complicates what we’ve previously read. This is where we learn the story of Derrick Hall and his friends, as well as that of Diana Crane, the young teacher who became known as the White Witch. Far from an evil sorceress, she turns out to be a regular person, her crime a tragic case of self-defense gone wrong. The porn shop teens aren’t Satan-worshippers, either — they’re just regular kids, to whom the appeal of Satanic imagery is simply that it looks cool and freaks out adults, and who never intended for their project to end in violence.

Interlaced with these stories, Gage’s sense of himself further fractures as he describes his research process and ruminates on the moral complications of his genre. A letter arrives on his door from the mother of a victim portrayed in one of his books, berating him for what she sees as an uncomplicated portrait of her son. It sends Gage reeling. “Victims spend their entire time in the spotlight just waiting for the fatal blow, on a conveyor belt that leads them to the guillotine,” he writes of others’ true-crime endeavors, yet he has also made a flat character out of a once living, breathing person with a family who loved him and grieve his loss. Finally, we emerge from the underbrush of story back to the narrative frame, where Gage reveals a secret — a final lurch that reframes Gage’s stories as well as his role as a storyteller.


Darnielle, of course, is far from the only person preoccupied with true crime right now. We are living at the height of a true crime boom, one which arguably began in the fall of 2014, when Sarah Koenig flew in on the wings of “This American Life” and Mailchimp to deliver a podcast called “Serial” — “one story, told week by week.” Entertainment based on real crimes had been around for more than a century, mostly in the form of magazine articles and best-selling books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, but “Serial” revealed a potential audience in the millions for new media riffs on the genre, triggering a surfeit of hit true-crime documentaries, TV shows, and podcasts.

And still, as the scaffolding of the new true-crime complex was reaching ever greater heights, a question was quietly but forcefully raised among fans and skeptics alike: just how ethical is this whole thing? Amid the constant swirl of true-crime content, some salient, broadly applicable critiques have solidified in the discourse: the genre tends to valorize, or at the very countenance, the police; it capitalizes on the base fears of many women, white women in particular, with countless examples of harrowing violence; and it often reduces both the victim and the perpetrator to little more than stock tropes.

Devil House wrestles primarily with the latter critique. Telling a true story, Gage realizes amid his crisis of conscience, necessitates turning people into characters, events into plot, the chaos of real life into symbols and narrative; someone must be shoved to the margins of their own story, while those at the center are warped until barely recognizable to those who really knew them. While Gage previously felt himself free of these sins as a writer seeking to weed out the false mythologies surrounding famous crimes, he seems to discover that you can’t true crime your way out of the ethical dilemmas of true crime: the counter-narrative deployed to disprove the original mythology doesn’t really portray its characters with more depth or nuance, because its primary relationship is to the mythology, rather than the characters. The truth lies not in between, but on a different plane entirely, in the crevices of experience that never make it onto the page, screen, or airwaves.

While the back cover blurb refers to Darnielle’s work as “blur[ring] of the line between fact and fiction,” his position — or Gage’s, at least — is that such a line is already all too blurry without his meddling. And while Darnielle doesn’t explicitly offer any ideas for how to contend with the ethical conundrums of true crime or nonfiction storytelling more broadly, Gage’s project, morally suspect as it may be, offers a corrective to the callousness of the genre’s worst material. The truest sections of Devil House are, ironically enough, those that fit most easily into the conventions of fiction: the vivid truth of drives along the bay in a convertible in springtime, of hot, harrowed tears in the eyes of a parent whose failed to protect their child from harm, of white lies and ill-fated schemes and the brief, crystalline moment of realizing that everything has gone terribly wrong. That some type of truth can be found in a lie or vice versa is far from a novel observation, but Darnielle’s skillfully refracted presentation of these ideas is as worth sticking around for as the tender and tragic stories that reveal themselves within his house of mirrors.

R.E. Hawley is a writer and designer whose work has appeared in The New Republic, The Baffler, The Outline, and Real Life.