Review: Devil House by John Darnielle

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Synopsis:

Gage Chandler is descended from kings. That’s what his mother always told him.

Now, he is a true crime writer, with one grisly success–and movie adaptation–to his name, along with a series of subsequent lesser efforts that have paid the bills but not much more. But now he is being offered the chance for the big break: To move into the house–what the locals call “The Devil House”–in which a briefly notorious pair of murders occurred, apparently the work of disaffected 1980s teens. He begins his research with diligence and enthusiasm, but soon the story leads him into a puzzle he never expected–back into his own work and what it means, back to the very core of what he does and who he is. 

Review:

John Darnielle is one of my favorite stars to think about. His life has been as wide ranging and unique as his music. He has been a psychiatric nurse, a drug addict, a musician, and a writer. As the Mountain Goats, he has written albums about everything from the work of French historian Pierre Chuvin to an album about professional wrestling. He is known for writing songs that tell stories and his lyrics very literary in nature. It is no surprise that he finds success with writing novels.

People really took notice of Darnielle’s writing when he wrote a 33 ⅓ book on Master of Reality by Black Sabbath. This book stands out in the series because it is not an essay on the album like the rest of the series. Master of Reality is a fictional narrative with the main character in a psychiatric ward trying to get his tape player back so he can listen to Black Sabbath. Darnielle found success with this book, and continued to write books and albums. 

Devil House is his fourth book, and it is his most ambitious. The main character, Gage Chandler, is descended from kings, according to his mother, and he has found success as a true crime writer. He hears about the case of the Devil House murders in 1986, where a realtor and potential buyer are slain inside an abandoned porn shop. The novel splits between this narrative and a retelling of pieces of his first true crime book about the White Witch, a teacher who killed two of her students when they forced their way into her apartment. The threads between these stories are many, and most of Devil House is not about the plot at all. It is about Gage Chandler himself, as a writer, as an artist, as a storyteller, and as a human. 

The book is broken into several different but related sections, and I cannot help but compare this to one of the the structure of a Mountain Goats concept album. The theme is the burdens and responsibilities that Gage has to bear by taking up the stories of others and retelling them through his own lens. Regardless of how neutral he tries to be, there is a perspective that he is conveying to the reader, and this is something that Gage Chandler really has to think about when he is constructing the whole story of the Devil House. In the end, Darnielle has written a novel that is more about big ideas on literature and art than about the actual plot and character. This honestly feels exactly how I expect any John Darnielle novel to feel. He is an artist who loves art and the meanings behind it, but sometimes he is more interested in the feelings that the art gives than the art itself. This is the substance of Devil House; he is telling a story about being an artist through telling the stories of grisly murders. 

I received this ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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