View Original Notice ? In ‘Devil House,’ John Darnielle blurs true crime with blood-soaked fiction
As novelist and singer-songwriter John Darnielle was finishing up his second novel, “Universal Harvester” in 2015, he was unexpectedly struck with the inspiration for his next book.
As he wrapped on writing for the day in a little office in Durham, North Carolina, he took a good look at the surrounding neighborhood and started to notice all the new construction and businesses that had built up around him. Over a decade ago, he drove through this same town and passed this very strip mall, which then housed several dilapidated buildings, one of which very briefly served as an adult video and book store with a sketchy hand-drawn sign, he recalled.
“I started telling myself these stories about why there’s no longer any sign at all that the building even existed and what happened to it,” Darnielle said during a recent phone interview. “Sure, you could try to dig up and find old pictures of it, but it became less than a ghost. It was nothing. So that was a source of inspiration for me as I started to think about whole histories happening in places whose existence can no longer even be proven.”
He explores this idea through the character, Gage Chandler, who is a true-crime writer, in Darnielle’s third novel, “Devil House,” which hits stores on Jan. 25.
In Darnielle’s novel, the true-crime story in Chandler’s latest book takes place in Milpitas, Calif. where a couple of grisly murders took place inside a vacant adult video and book store in the early ’80s. Though authorities blamed the tragedy on a satanic cult due to a spray-painted pentagram and some other questionable artwork on the premises, no arrests were ever made. Years later, the building where the bloody scene occurred is now a haphazardly flipped home and Chandler moves in to fully immersive himself in his investigative storytelling.
As he slowly peels back the multi-layered circumstances leading up to the murders, as well as physically removing the carpet and wallpaper in the home, suspects emerge and the evolution of the building begins to reveal itself. Darnielle also mixes a bit of non-fiction into the book, peppering in the real-life murder of Marcy Renee Conrad in Milpitas in 1981, which inspired the 1986 crime drama “River’s Edge” starring Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper. In “Devil House,” Darnielle weaves the two stories together and explains the town’s resentment toward how it was portrayed in the film and the community’s reluctance to speak with Chandler about yet another tragedy that has rocked their worlds.
In the fictional world of Darnielle’s novel, his protagonist Chandler wrote a book called “The White Witch From Morro Bay” about a teacher who is convicted of killing two students who broke into her home. As Chandler moves on to yet another story in a new city and a new home, he begins to wonder if he’s being responsible in his storytelling. The mother of one of the murdered students from his first book didn’t seem to think so.
So we asked Darnielle if he’d been in the same position as his character: Would reading a lengthy hand-written letter from a grieving mother of one of the students alter how he’d write about those involved in the murders in Milpitas?
“It’s such a complicated question,” Darnielle explains. “On one hand, you can say that the artist should say whatever they want … but then you grow past that and you come to an understanding that, of course, anyone can say whatever and that’s obvious, but then responsibility becomes a much more grown-up question. The more interesting question is that responsibility. Some say there’s no responsibility except to tell a good story. To some extent, I agree with that. You’re an entertainer and it’s your job to be entertaining and what people do with your art is up to them.”
Darnielle said he faces a similar line of self-questioning when it comes to his songwriting as well. He’s fronted the folk-rock band the Mountain Goats, which he formed while living in Claremont, since the early ’90s. The band continues to perform and just released the studio album, “Dark in Here,” last year along with a pair of live albums dubbed, “The Jordan Lake Sessions.”
“I used to write a lot of songs with super unhealthy narrators, which is fun to do and some of my most well-liked songs are these,” he said. “But occasionally I have somebody who will come tell me, ‘Oh yeah, I totally relate to this’ and I go, ‘Oh, you weren’t supposed to relate to that, it’s more of like a cautionary tale thing.’”
“A number of people have asked me to play ‘No Children’ at their wedding and I don’t do it,” he said of his song, which is given a jazzy update on the newly released live records. “I’m not going to celebrate the prospect of an unhealthy household, even if it is a joke. I mean if people want to play it, that’s fine, but I’m not going to be the guy up there helping it along.”
Darnielle grew up in San Luis Obispo but later moved to Claremont and attended Claremont High School. He relocated to Portland, Oregon for a bit before returning to Southern California and working at a hospital in Norwalk. He eventually went on to earn a degree in English from Pitzer College. Through all of his odd jobs and education, he continued to create music and write. His first novella, “Black Sabbath: Master of Reality,” part of the 33 1/3 series of fiction books about individual albums, was published in 2008. Though his two sons keep him and his wife, photographer Lalitree Darnielle, pretty busy, he’s also really into horror movies and he even co-hosted his own podcast, “I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats,” for a couple of years.
But it’s the writing that consumes the bulk of his free time.
“My process probably looks like everyone else’s work process … I open up the computer, spend too much time on social media, look at the clock and then go, ‘Oh shoot, I was gonna write something, let me get 500 words in here,’” he said with a laugh, comparing his more scattered writing process to that of his main character in “Devil House.” “My stories don’t usually work in a linear way. When ‘Wolf in White Van” came together, I had to sit down on the floor and start cutting the printed manuscript into little parts and go, ‘What if this part goes here?’”
He’s adamant that doing this digitally is still too risky as one can easily lose track of drafts or worse, permanently delete large chunks of text. He said he speaks from experience.
“If you do it in a physical space then you’re cool,” he said. “But sometimes when you take a step back and you look down you go, ‘What have I done? Man, I’m crazy.’ It looks nuts. When I wrote ‘Wolf in White Van,’ I also had a very young baby too, who would occasionally just take off and roll across all of it, which really was perfect.”