... terrific: confident, creepy, a powerful and soulful page-turner. I had no idea where it was going, in the best possible sense ... The thing about Darnielle’s writing, in all its forms, is this: If you’re that dorky outcast kid drawing a pentagram on the back page of your three-ring binder in algebra class, not because you want to drink anyone’s blood but because you think it’s cool, he sees you. His novels are in close contact with the alternative cultural universes of fantasy and the occult and science fiction, yet they don’t resemble genre fiction. They’re earthy and fly low to the ground. They are plain-spoken and in no hurry ... Devil House...[is]never quite the book you think it is. It’s better.
John Darnielle’s latest novel, set in Milpitas, delivers as a riveting reflection on the nature of true crime and storytelling. What matters more in the genre of true crime: the crime or the truth? Such is the question at the heart of Devil House, the masterful third novel from Mountain Goats singer-songwriter John Darnielle. Simultaneously functioning as a gripping murder mystery, a meditation on place and a metafictional dissection of the true-crime genre, Darnielle’s latest proves rather decisively that his immense talents as a musician extend to the written word as well ... Suspenseful, brilliant and chaotically addicting, Devil House triumphs as a page-turning metafictional treatise on the power of narratives cloaked in the trappings of a certifiable true crime classic.
[A] brilliant novel ... After the first section, detailing Chandler’s project, come alternating sections about the Devil House murders and one of Chandler’s previous books about another case, The White Witch murders ... Ingrained in each part is a question about the nature of true crime and whether it’s possible to write it ethically and with real compassion for the victims ... Darnielle skillfully navigates the difficult point of view, pulling the reader ever tighter into the narrative. He sprinkles the first-person throughout as a reminder that it’s Chandler who’s telling the story, and each hits like an unexpected creak, as if I’d been caught watching something I shouldn’t have been ... The sections set in the Devil House are comparatively conventional, but no less gripping ... Unfortunately, the novel’s interlude nearly derails the book. The telling of a Welsh legend about King Gorbonianus, it’s written in a dreadful mock medieval syntax ... Its connection to the narrative is tenuous, it illuminates very little, and perhaps the best evidence that the rest of Devil House is spectacular is that even this section can’t ruin it ... Darnielle impressively dramatizes the writing of a true crime book and the massively deleterious effect the process has on a person genuinely concerned with the ethics of what they’re doing ... Darnielle renders this dilemma—and the bad-taste curiosity that compels people to read and write true crime despite reservations—with such depth and clarity that it feels like he’s somehow culpable too. That’s good fiction writing.
Darnielle shifts his vantage point on suffering without losing or lessening his willingness to confront it ... Soon enough, he's in the house, neck-deep in an idiosyncratic and imaginative research process, which Darnielle evokes exceptionally well. It helps that his prose is assertively, beautifully wrought ... It is very challenging to write compellingly about research; Darnielle pulls it off here, both because his sentences are so good and because Gage has such strong opinions about his craft ... All this shifting and breaking of narrative can be disorienting; the letter is emotionally wrenching. As a result, Devil House becomes progressively less enjoyable to read — which is, of course, Darnielle's point. Gage's method is letting him down; so is his creed.
With these three interweaving narratives informing and deconstructing each other, Devil House becomes a complex, thematically rich and resonant series of tales of crime and murder. But it also becomes a meta-textual consideration of storytelling itself – why we tell ourselves and others stories, how we are able to construct narratives to make sense of the world and to share that view of the world with others, and how these stories can look different from different perspectives. In doing so Devil House becomes both an analysis and takedown of the true crime genre ... John Darnielle’s novels have never been what readers might think they are. He uses genre to draw readers in and provide the foundation of an engaging narrative. But his use of genre conventions is usually to subvert them and open the door to a much broader conversation. In Devil House he uses this technique to deliver another fascinating, complex and cleverly constructed novel that asks plenty of questions and delivers no easy answers.
... presents as horror but spirals off, with mixed results, in several unexpected directions: it’s a critique of true crime and the impulses that inspire it, a fragmented character study and a metafictional puzzle. This last strand is the most intriguing, landing the novel in an interesting space somewhere between Atonement and the Serial podcast ... Darnielle likes obscurity and the gaps between facts, where rumours swell like mushrooms. Devil House brilliantly captures the pre-internet spread of news in the way the Milpitas murders accumulate weird details, especially in school playgrounds ... He evokes a powerful sense of place, too ... In these sections the writing is at its most exciting, Gage slipping unexpectedly from the plain, doomy register of true crime into something mock-medieval that conveys the teenagers’ shared dreamworld...I loved this part of the book. Elsewhere, I struggled. The medieval flourishes are a bold move for a true crime author and one of the questions Devil House seems to pose is: can Gage Chandler write? A recycled detail suggests not ... Planted errors like these are fun to uncover. It’s harder to get enjoyment from Gage’s tendency to state the obvious and habit of formulating metaphors that cloud more than clarify ... Is this Darnielle inhabiting a bad writer, or just bad writing? ... the most enjoyable elements of Darnielle’s novel are the blank spaces – maddening, but as true as it gets – left in its accounts of Gage, the White Witch case, and whatever really went down in the Devil House.
The question of what precisely it is you’re reading lingers at various points, and no sooner do you find your bearing within the text than Darnielle re-angles the mirrors once again, reorienting everything that has come before. After a formally conventional if unsettling opening section narrated by Gage, the novel splits wide open into a series of paired sections, each one in the first half corresponding to one in the back half that complicates what we’ve previously read ... That some type of truth can be found in a lie or vice versa is far from a novel observation, but Darnielle’s skillfully refracted presentation of these ideas is as worth sticking around for as the tender and tragic stories that reveal themselves within his house of mirrors.
In Devil House, you can expect to come across terrifying paintings on walls and a murder with an oyster knife, but not without understanding the hopes and lives of everyone involved. Darnielle has a real feel for places where the action isn’t, and the people who call those towns home ... Darnielle switches stories up again and then unfolds them, basically in reverse order. After a center interlude that seems entirely separate but actually speaks to all of the narratives, including Chandler himself, we return to the stories of the devil house and the witch murders, but in ways that recast them and show the damage wrought. There’s no finger pointing, just an expanding perspective that shows that these stories, structured for our satisfaction, leave pain in their wake.
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 ... A couple of chapters in, I had to admit I’d been wrong—at least about Darnielle ... 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 ... 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 feel for time and place is also what Darnielle’s novels are known for ... 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 ... Darnielle’s fiction resists closure ... Fortunately, the foolish story I once told myself no longer keeps me from seeing how good Darnielle is at it.
... a fascinating hybrid of gothic horror, the true crime format, and something stranger. It’s keenly attuned to how people change, how we bring our pasts with us, how the spaces we enter shape us, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes violently. The novel is intensely (if circuitously) invested in the condition of narration—who is speaking, why are they speaking, what are they getting out of it? It’s a picture of someone refusing to tell a story they’re already committed to tell, that they’re complicit in and profiting from. While I expected bloody twists and turns, the kinds of twists and turns this novel threw at me were intoxicating ... sits in a strange place, genre-wise: horror-adjacent, full of sympathy and insight, overflowing with cryptic references and narrative culs-de-sac...suffused with atmospheric setting and character work and, in one of its least-explained and least-explicit gambits, oblique references to medieval history ... Early in the novel, I was really struck by the confidence of Darnielle’s narrator. Chandler has impeccable bedside manner, a soothing presence despite his gruesome subjects. He is also masterful at sketching out characters with deep sympathy, at capturing ambiance and group dynamics, and never fails to keep his own voice present, a personable tone anchoring unsettling stories. It’s an effective and enjoyable technique for a true crime narrative; what I absolutely love about Devil House is the way Darnielle is playing with that. This is fiction, not true crime, despite its use of the format and its many references to actual cases. Devil House focuses on that distinction; more than that, the novel is feeling its way, quite emotionally, around the ethical quandaries inherent in telling stories about real people and events ... a heady, thoughtful piece of metafiction ... There are wild and disturbing narratives here, but what’s even more interesting is the way they’re layered and interwoven and the way they sometimes contradict each other ... there’s no question that Darnielle’s strategy works, and profoundly so: layering stories and ideas, so that I was constantly both immersed in the story to hand and wondering about the story up or down a level ... Crime-thriller hooks, emotional and philosophical reflection, and one of the most subtle and devastating endings I’ve ever read: Devil House is a novel I know I’ll be returning to.
... a gripping true crime novel, a darkly gleeful romp through the tropes of true crime as a genre, and an increasingly painful series of questions about what it costs to make art from someone else’s life and death ... a nesting doll of a book ... Each section mirrors what came before, offering new angles on the murders and on Gage’s own life; each time the book hit what I thought was a peak, Darnielle used the next chapter to turn that peak inside out ... John Darnielle’s work...understands that even a life that looks safe and ordinary from the outside can have sea monsters waiting in the corners of the map, and he also understands that the sea monsters probably have their own stories where they’re not monsters at all ... Darnielle has a beautiful handle on the fluidity of the young adult brain, the way reality and fantasy flow together, the way mythmaking can be second nature at that age, and the way fiction infuses and shapes people’s reality ... Darnielle is, I think, one of our best writers on class and on the way this country has failed its poor ... Darnielle’s able to excavate the ways that terrible pressure can result in violence even from the most good-hearted people, and he’s able to show that even the most mean-hearted people deserve a measure of empathy.
Split into seven interlocking sections and told over centuries, the novel is an inventive exploration of which stories we prioritize and which we push down, in our popular hunger for narratives of crime, justice, and redemption. Darnielle marshals his many interests toward something approaching social critique ... Devil House is at times an investigation, a memoir, a piece of reportage, and, in its most elusive moment, the story of a British king by the name of Gorbonian, written in the sort of faux–old English favored by writers of low-rent swords and sorcery ... This is fundamentally a novel about whose perspectives we gravitate toward and whose we bury when telling stories about crime and suffering ... The novel’s best moments describe extremes. Darnielle expertly handles the violent scenes, presenting the death and dismemberment in a cool, controlled voice, heightening the horror by his refusal to obscure it ... but I wasn’t sure I’d learned anything new about Jesse at all. He had been consumed entirely by what Parul Sehgal recently termed 'the Trauma Plot,' that tendency writers have lately taken toward prioritizing suffering in place of characterization ... Jesse is all wound, no person ... Or so I felt until the novel’s final section ... It’s a formally audacious [book], a work of fiction-presented-as-truth nested inside this larger fictional project that serves, ultimately, as an exploration of writing fictionalized reality.
Darnielle’s stories, whether on the page or set to music 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 ... 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.
... confronts something that true crime readers, and authors, would prefer to ignore: the cost of their morbid fascinations ... The reader’s attention is torn; as soon as this novel finds solid ground, it swerves away to another era, another voice, or even, at one point, another style entirely, lapsing into gothic script and Early Modern English in order to tell the story of two (imaginary) adolescent knights ... Devil House is likely not for everyone, perhaps not even all of Darnielle’s fans. But it’s courageous in its strangeness and sincerity, its formal ambition and the beauty it locates in culture’s forgotten, unloved outposts. For those willing to tolerate its tricks and its Nabokovian nesting-doll of a plot, Darnielle’s lost world of lost boys is a comforting place to be – all the more so for the danger looming beyond its castle walls.
... a thoughtful (yet still riveting) rumination on authorial responsibility. Inventive and sometimes strange...Devil House is an entertaining page-turner with Darnielle’s signature peculiar-scary style. But it also is a weighty and contemplative look at the art of fiction, the impact of nonfiction, the power of memory, and the ways in which our decisions are the real horrors to fear.
It’s a terrific set-up, especially when we discover that despite all the talk of Satan-loving teenagers, the murderer was never apprehended. And yet, just as we’re getting drawn into the checkered history of Chandler’s new home, the novel switches focus and we’re presented with a lengthy excerpt from Chandler’s debut true crime novel ... Darnielle is not the first writer to recognise that truth is a slippery commodity or opine about the morality of true-crime novels (and podcasts and documentaries). As with his previous books, it’s Darnielle’s eclectic approach to his subject matter, his unwillingness to conform to a specific style or mode, that makes his work stand out and feel fresh. I know it’s only January, but I’m sure Devil House will be one of my best novels of the year.
... engrossing ... a good tale, well told, with the requisite twists, turns, and surprises. In parts, Darnielle’s writing is lyrical ... There are, however, a number of narrative speed bumps and detours, which may be intriguing to some readers but distracting to others ... The most compelling parts of Devil House are Gage’s insightful, sometimes painfully clear-eyed reflections on the craft of true crime writing. It is one that rings true—sometimes spot on—to a nonfiction crime practitioner ... Darnielle, like Gage, knows what he is doing. For fans of true crime and fictional thrillers—as well as for would-be practitioners of either—Devil House is an entertaining, but also an instructional read.
While the cover of this novel gives a schlocky 80s horror feel, this is a surprisingly sensitive, almost delicately haunting look at the responsibility that non-fiction writers have in dealing with the survivors of violence. It’s a book about how guilt and ethics can drive people mad―not necessarily homicidally, but certainly enough to dissociate from reality in disturbing ways. It’s also a book about the complicated lives of American teenagers in the 1980s, the lives of kids who wanted to fit in or who wanted to escape, but most of all who wanted to survive. Complex, thought-provoking, and written with the use of various inventive literary forms, this is not your ordinary horror novel, though it will long haunt readers’ imaginations.
All but one of the sections (more on that in a moment) work seamlessly together to create a story that is less about the blood and the gore of crime and more about the people behind the crimes ... At first, Devil House can be a bit difficult to get into, especially if you are expecting it to kick off with a grizzly recounting of the crime in question. Instead, Darnielle chooses to lead the reader in slowly, acclimating us to Chandler and his particular methods of research. Eventually, we realize that this is not your normal murder mystery as Darnielle’s main focus seems to be less on what happened and more on the people involved in the story. In many ways, the book reads like the antithesis to a true mystery. We know relatively early on who is responsible for the crime, but our interest is held with Darnielle’s deep dive into the psyches of everyone involved. At its best, Devil House is a book more interested in exploring the lives of the potential suspects and victims that existed before any crime was committed so that we might gain better insight into their motives and their fears ... For the most part, Darnielle’s latest is a gripping account of what it means to tell the truth, and how sometimes telling a truth doesn’t necessarily add up to telling the whole truth. Much like his music, Darnielle’s descriptions of Satanic rituals and seedy backroom porn store life color the story, giving it a texture that both repels you all while drawing you in with its grime ... The medieval connection is one that feels deeply important to Darnielle (he even makes a specific point to mention first thing, two medieval history books in his acknowledgements section as being extremely useful to his writing process) but may leave readers feeling a bit miffed. Fans of medieval history may have better luck parsing this particular concept of the book, but it may not be for everyone. Overall though, Devil House is an interesting look at how even when we do our best to tell the truth, we may be missing other truths that can paint the story in an entirely different way.
The book tells who the killer was, but then seems to back-pedal towards the end, so that the reader is not quite sure ... The writing is polished, and once you are through slow-moving and not obviously relevant opening pages, you will be hooked.
Darnielle's prose (and Darnielle-as-Chandler's prose; the two are not always the same) teems with teeth-chattering tension, even though the basic facts of both cases are laid out pretty plainly in the first few pages of the books. While the arresting drama of discovery is certainly satisfying, it's not the main feast of this book. And that itself is a clever hook: come for the gripping true crime tale, stay for the heartbreaking deconstruction of our voyeuristic fascination with real-life murder ... The prose is consistently luscious, even as it moves like a chameleon from Gage's personal notes, to his published prose, to his self-reflections, and then slips into the perspectives of the people affected by these murders ... Not every part of Devil House works perfectly. The section on the medieval Welsh legend of Gorbonian, while well-written, is difficult to read both in font and syntax, and doesn't illuminate the narrative quite as cleverly as it seems to wish it could ... The same can be said about the narrative switch at the end—it works, and it's effective, and I don't know how else the story could have been wrapped up, but it still seemed like a strange structural decision, as if Darnielle just needed another reason to stretch the voice of his prose. Speaking of endings, the ending of Devil House is haunting me. I mean this mostly as a positive: I was unable to put the book down even as relatives arrived at the house for Christmas, and it spooked me out of conversation even after I was done.
In achingly tragic retellings, there is more to both crimes than initially appears to be the case in this labyrinthine quest for the truth. This should draw true-crime devotees as well as crime and general-fiction readers.
... [a] riveting metafictional epic ... This masterwork of suspense is as careful with its sharp takes as it is with the bread crumbs it slowly drops on the way to its stunning end. It operates perfectly on many levels, resulting in a must-read for true crime addicts and experimental fiction fans alike.
... this smart, twisty novel about true-crime books and the 1980s “Satanic panic” is a fine fit for him and his best so far ... the novel becomes a kind of critique of the form, as Darnielle (and Gage) imagines the crime victims (and ideas of victimhood) in more nuanced ways. This takes some odd turns: Substantial passages are written in ersatz Middle English, part of a subplot involving Arthurian legends. But he’s excellent at getting into the uncomfortable details of abusive homes and how fear sparks an urge to escape both physically and creatively. And the closing pages cleverly resolve the Milpitas mystery while avoiding sordid crime reportage’s demand for scapegoats and simple motives. An impressively meta work that delivers the pleasures of true-crime while skewering it.