Devil House by John Darnielle

Devil House is a novel about a true crime writer who finds himself tangled up in a web of what story he is telling. Gage Chandler had a hit debut true crime book, and subsequent movie adaptation, to make his name, and then more books that were less successful. His latest opportunity is to move into the ‘Devil House’, the location of murders in the 1980s that seemed to be part of the Satanic Panic, and use his techniques for uncovering the story to write his next book. However, as he writes and explores what happened, true crime starts to get less clear for him as a goal.

I’ve not read anything by Darnielle before (and heard about one Mountain Goats song, though I’ve heard of them a lot) so I didn’t know what to expect going in, other than the lurid cover that is perhaps a bit of misdirection (though it is very Satanic Panic). The novel is broken into different sections, moving between Chandler’s narrative of researching and writing, the story of the Devil House, and some other parts woven in too. Until quite near the end, it’s not quite clear what is going to happen, and the ending wasn’t what I expected, but I enjoyed how it played out for the most part (I didn’t quite get the Arthurian digression, though I do like Arthurian stuff and on reflection I can kinda see the point).

As a novel, it is mostly a commentary on true crime, writing, and obsession, and I thought the stuff about true crime was very interesting, though as someone who doesn’t read or watch the genre, I don’t know much about levels of fictionality and fact in it. Ideas of what is a ‘good’ narrative and how you turn the messy truth into something gripping are very intriguing, and the book does play with that by luring you into thinking you have a nice narrative, though the actual ending of the whole book is perhaps a little underwhelming because of it all. I liked the experiment of this novel in terms of the layers of narrative and the different stories you are told, though, as with true crime, you almost wish all the stories could be wrapped up a little more neatly.