I have, once or twice, been near enough to the inside of a newspaper story to get a sense of what happens when something that occurs with real humans is interpreted and reported on by other humans. It’s a game of telephone writ large – suddenly, certain elements get dropped, others become far more prominent than they might have been when the event happened in real time. This can be disorienting for the people inside of the event, who have so much context beyond the story that gets shaped by whoever is portraying it. And yet, that is what happens when we must tell a story – we have to shape it.
This tension between wanting to put the “true” into “true crime” and needing to shape an appropriate narrative is central to Devil House, the most recent of John Darnielle’s novels. Darnielle is a gifted writer, capable of creating a story that feels at once grounded in a specific place and also ethereal. Every sentence is layered with expectation – and, as in his previous two novels, there’s a hint of potential scares, but the power is in feeling threatened more than anything actually delivered. To be sure, there are some creepy passages and depictions of gore that were difficult to take. These passages, however, were few and far between. This wasn’t a haunted house story, or a story about devil worshiping teens – it’s a story about HOW we tell stories. As with all haunted house stories, it is about how people deal with death and suffering and horrific events. Somehow, when Darnielle tells a story, he manages to bring us much closer to what is actually human about it, and also removes us a few steps at the same time so that we can hover curiously above.
Devil House consists of seven parts – there’s lots of symmetry here, and like the actions of his characters this feels like an intentional detail. The novel begins and ends with Gage Chandler, a true crime writer who is struggling with the ethics of what and how he writes. Chandler has a particular method – he insinuates himself into the life of the event he writes about – possibly born from his original idea, which came to him during the life he was authentically living. A local teacher murders two students, and the myth of The White Witch is born. Chandler examines this case from another angle, and as readers so we do in the second part. The third part dives into the Devil House murders, and the fourth gives us a diversion that is hinted at in the first section. The book then reverses the order, returning us to Devil House, then the story of the White Witch (but from a completely different angle) and finally returns us to the story of Chandler – but again, through the eyes of someone new. I don’t want to say too much about the particulars in each of these sections – I think the pleasure here is in reading and feeling the tension, and its resolution, on your own.
It might help not to expect something intense and creepy, but to be prepared for a mix of some atmospheric creepiness, some gory passages, but primarily a meditation on stories and how we tell them.