Books

It Turns Out Celebrities Can Actually Be Amazing Novelists

I figured John Darnielle’s books were only getting attention because he’s the guy from the Mountain Goats. Boy was I wrong.

John Darnielle is seen adjusting his glasses in front of the covers of his three novels.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images.

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A confession: From the publication of John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van, in 2014, I’d thought of his books as skippable. This, despite never having read a page of either Wolf or its follow-up, 2017’s Universal Harvester, and even despite the National Book Award nomination Wolf scored. I knew that Darnielle leads the Mountain Goats, an indie rock band with a fervent following. For that reason, I assumed that his fiction would ease into publication, that it would be read and positively reviewed by critics who are Mountain Goats fans, and that it would sell fairly well to the same people who buy the band’s albums—all regardless of its quality. Most novels by celebrities don’t need to be much good, which is fortunate because they never are any good, or at least that’s what I believed until I said, “What the hell?” and picked up a copy of Darnielle’s latest, Devil House.

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A couple of chapters in, I had to admit I’d been wrong—at least about Darnielle. I still don’t care about the Mountain Goats (or indie rock bands in general, really). But reading Devil House, a strange, enthralling novel, precipitated a binge through Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester, books with an idiosyncratic flavor most unlike the usual run of literary fiction, even if they share some of its concerns. These novels are like fingers straining to keep hold of an object relentlessly slipping away. At times the anticipated loss is of something as universal as youth, or the relationship between parents and their children who are approaching adulthood and leaving home. In other, smaller, more concrete instances, Darnielle commemorates aspects of our pre-internet culture, a time when information was elusive and mystery was everywhere. In Wolf, the disfigured, reclusive narrator runs a Choose Your Own Adventure–style game called Trace Italian, conducted entirely on paper, with strangers, via the United States Postal Service. In Universal Harvester, set during the late 1990s, characters who work at a video rental shop in small-town Iowa discover clips of disturbing footage inserted into their copies of Hollywood films.

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[Read: The Amazing Wolf in White Van Digs Into an Artist’s Unspoken Fears]

Devil House nailed me with a nostalgic detail. The narrator at the beginning of the novel is a true crime writer improbably named Gage Chandler. His first book, The White Witch of Morro Bay, describes two murders committed in the 1970s by a schoolteacher, a youngish single woman like a wistful heroine from a Robert Altman film. Chandler imagines her standing at the checkout in a supermarket, surveying “pocket-sized booklets nested in the rack above the chewing gum: Prophecies and Predictions; 50 Different Casseroles!; Strange Tragedies of the Silver Screen.” Priced at 49 cents, stapled rather than bound, these little “mini mags” were impulse items aimed at housewives, and they used to be ubiquitous. Whole generations spent hours staring at them while bored and waiting in line. But at some point they vanished, an extinction I’d never even noticed until Devil House reminded me of them. In Devil House, the schoolteacher, her curiosity piqued, tosses a copy of a booklet titled Everyday Witchcraft onto the conveyor belt, and when it’s found in her apartment after the murders, the legend of the White Witch is born.

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Devil House can be read as an indictment of the true crime genre, specifically of the way stories are concocted to explain often-unfathomable tragedies, and of how some stories take precedence over others regardless of their truth. A little thing like the Everyday Witchcraft booklet, bought on a whim, becomes transformed by the collective imagination into a clue, pregnant with meaning. The truth, as Chandler sees it, is that the teacher, surprised and restrained in her home by a pair of students intent on robbing her, defends herself, stabbing both of them to death. That crime gets spun by the prosecution and by popular legend into the kind of man-eating witch story kids scare one another with on playgrounds and at slumber parties. “People get murdered everywhere,” Chandler explains, “but not every murder blooms into myth.”

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The White Witch book Chandler wrote, a debunking of the Morro Bay myth, was his first. Devil House is about his thwarted, tangled attempts to tell the story of another crime, two murders committed in an abandoned porn shop in the 1980s. The store had been taken over by teen squatters who transformed it into a sort of fun house, cutting up and repurposing the dusty merchandise into a giant angel suspended from the ceiling, and turning the viewing booths into themed chambers using the iconography beloved by the decade’s metalhead kids: wizards, witches, monsters, and serial killers. This takes place in Milpitas, a sleepy California town mutating into a suburb of San Jose and Silicon Valley. The story never got much play in the true crime annals, even though it happened during the heyday of the satanic panic. Chandler figures that’s because Milpitas was already notorious for a (real-life) murder that became the inspiration for the 1986 feature film Rivers Edge and prompted much discussion and soul-searching about the depravity and ennui of contemporary teens. Chandler believes the local authorities and press smothered the story to keep it from further besmirching the reputation of Milpitas. No one is ever charged with the crime.

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Devil House seems to consist of a collection of documents. One is Chandler’s firsthand account of researching his own book. That research consists not just of looking up records and interviewing locals. He also buys the long-empty building where the murders occurred and fills it with thrift store finds from the period, re-creating scenes as best he can from purloined crime scene photos purchased on eBay. “A feel for time and place is the corner on which I set up shop,” Chandler explains, and his method consists of sitting in the space for weeks, absorbing the atmosphere, imagining himself into the lives of the people involved. A feel for time and place is also what Darnielle’s novels are known for, whether it’s the sweet stagnation of life in a faltering Iowa farm town in Universal Harvester or the sticky idleness of summer afternoons in Milpitas—a place, as one of the teenagers who transforms the Devil House recalls, “where you could ride your bike past auto repair yards whose rusty corrugated rooftops would probably never be replaced, a place where on the wrong day you could get lost trying to find your oldest friend’s house because every other house on the block looks just the same.”

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[Read: Universal Harvester Is Like a Particularly Mournful X-Files Episode]

Or perhaps that’s just what Chandler imagines Derrick, the teenager in question, thinking as he cruises through his senior year trying to have fun while avoiding the kind of trouble that might interfere with his plans for college? The passages of Devil House depicting the lives and feelings of these kids are so saturated in anticipatory nostalgia that they suggest an adult sensibility seeping in through the cracks. If Darnielle’s fiction has a predominant mood, this is it: the sensation that whatever golden moments the present offers are receding even as we savor them, and if we don’t savor them, we’ll regret it because every scene becomes infinitely precious in memory, glowing in the rearview mirror. There’s a pleasant melancholy to this outlook that at times becomes piercing, but it seems pretty alien to the adolescent characters Darnielle likes to write about. Teenagers, especially the ones who live in do-nothing towns, tend to look forward rather than back.

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These parts of the book appear to be fragments of Chandler’s manuscript. He explains from the outset that he’s been stuck writing and rewriting the book for four years. The stake through the heart of his project was a long letter, received in Milpitas, sent to him by the mother of one of the victims of the Morro Bay schoolteacher. The letter recounts her history with the abusive husband she could not conceive of escaping and tells of how dear her boy was to her, how sweet she believed him to be, and how unlucky he was to fall under the spell of the sociopathic classmate who came up with the robbery plan. It’s a heart-rending story, related by Chandler in the second person, a narration technique that suggests just how deeply he has absorbed this mother’s reproach. The book he wrote, The White Witch of Morro Bay, was the schoolteacher’s story, but in telling it that way, she accuses him of relegating her son to “a worthless life whose only purpose was to be sacrificed for somebody else’s story.”

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The final section of the book seems to be narrated by Darnielle himself, or perhaps a fictional alter ego, an old friend of Chandler’s who agrees to read the vexatious manuscript. Here the sins of true crime writer and novelist mingle and bleed into each other. Doesn’t Darnielle, like Chandler, brood and muse over objects and places, drawing meanings from them that may be strictly of his own creating? The Everyday Witchcraft booklet found in the schoolteacher’s apartment, with its cover photo of “a white cat sitting next to a crystal ball on a table draped in black velvet cloth,” is both a clue to the police and a charged talisman that summons up scenes from the past. The details fiction writers learn to incorporate into their work operate like clues, making an imaginary scene visible, cementing the reader’s faith in the story being told. Darnielle’s fiction, like true crime, is fixated on the past. “The more books I write,” Chandler says, sounding much like his creator, “the more I notice how almost everything takes place in the lost age.” And stories by their nature foreground some characters while placing others in subordinate roles or the background, just as Chandler has done with the schoolteacher’s victims.

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Darnielle’s fiction resists closure, although Devil House offers more of it than his previous two novels did. Nevertheless, as with his other books, this is a story about what can’t be told because the nature of telling selects some truths while setting others aside. This doesn’t make stories necessarily wrong, but it does make them incomplete. “What would my work be like if I had to keep returning to the same story every time,” Chandler wonders. What if “there was only the one place, a place where, every time I told the story again, there was some new thing to learn about it, some overlooked ripple or wrinkle or speck that fleshed out the details, that brought them more fully to life.” This is the serious novelist’s remit. Fortunately, the foolish story I once told myself no longer keeps me from seeing how good Darnielle is at it.