John Darnielle’s stories, whether on the page (Wolf in White Van, Universal Harvester) or set to music (the Mountain Goats), have a tendency to transcend easy classification and simple genre labels. And yet there’s always a clarity to them, a feeling that the creator’s mind and heart are at work in tandem. With Devil House, his extraordinarily ambitious third novel, Darnielle proves his versatility yet again. This remarkable shapeshifter of a tale changes form, perspective and even relative truth as it pleases, but never loses its voice.
Bestselling true crime writer Gage Chandler thinks he’s found his next book in the form of a 1980s cold case that revolves around an adult video store, a group of teens interested in the occult and two victims who never received justice after one brutal Halloween night. Hoping to absorb the atmosphere of the crime scene and drill down to the truth, Gage moves into the site of the murders, the titular “Devil House.” But the deeper he descends, the slipperier the truth becomes.
Though the novel begins with Gage’s point of view and moves seamlessly into the affable, straightforward style of a true crime writer laying out the facts, Darnielle doesn’t stop there. Chapters unfold from various perspectives, including that of the subject of one of Gage’s past books and those of the principals in the Devil House case. There are even sections that drift into stylized Middle English and an entire chapter documenting the life of a king.
And yet, Devil House never feels like a book steeped in gimmicks, because Darnielle steers his dark vessel with dexterity, wit and stunning inventiveness. This novel will lure in true crime fans and readers of experimental fiction alike, then blow them all away with its determined exploration of the nature of truth and what we want to hear versus what we need to hear. It’s a triumph from an always exciting storyteller.