This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Devil House by John Darnielle.
I’ve been listening to John Darnielle’s music — he’s the songwriter for The Mountain Goats — for almost two decades. What drew me in were his turns of phrase and his ability to create fully-realized, evocative worlds within three-minute songs. He also developed characters over the course of years; many of his early songs feature the Alphas, an unhappy couple who spread their misery across several states before finally calling it quits.
Given his demonstrated literary abilities, I was excited when he began publishing novels (Wolf in White Van, Universal Harvester, and the novella Master of Reality). (There are plenty of other songwriters whom I admire, but should they turn to literary fiction… I’d be wary).
And so, I’ve approached each new novel as a fan, but every time I’ve been happily surprised to find that each book exceeded my expectations (Wolf in White Van was long-listed for the National Book Award the week it was published; it’s always nice to have your opinions immediately validated by prestigious committees). When I got a hold of Darnielle’s latest novel, Devil House, my expectations had been ratcheted up to new, perhaps unsupportable highs. But this Devil House is built on strong foundations.
The book centers on Gage Chandler, a true crime author who immerses himself in the locales of the murders that he writes about. At the book’s opening, Gage has taken his method to a new extreme: he lives in a house that, years before, had been the site of a grisly crime scene. As his investigation continues, the cost of telling the stories of the perpetrators and the victims of brutality starts to weigh on him.
Gage isn’t the only focus of the book; it is a work with an ever-shifting gaze. Divided into seven parts, Devil House is as much a labyrinth as a book. Like many albums by The Mountain Goats, different views of the same subject add up to a greater whole, and as soon as I’d finished, I wanted to start over from the beginning.
It’s probably a disservice to multi-hyphenate artists to compare their work across mediums too intensely. But I find it unavoidable to regard Devil House as embodying one of the great strengths of the music: it unapologetically looks at people in the moment of their greatest desperation and duress, and compassionately locates their humanity, still in there, no matter how obscured.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month.