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‘Devil House’ is an introspective novel on the ripple effect of true-crime writing

john darnielle.jpg

First things first: John Darnielle is the front man for the Mountain Goats, an indie rock group known for such songs as “Damn These Vampires” and “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.”

He is also now a three-time novelist. And while I’m in no position to judge the merits of his songwriting – other than to say I love the lyric “I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me” – I can say his newest novel, “Devil House,” is nothing short of masterful.

The novel centers on Gage Chandler, a true-crime writer who moves to Milpitas, California, with an odd and eerie mission: He plans to live on the site of an unsolved double-murder that happened during the Satanic panic of the 1980s, in an abandoned porn shop defaced with occult imagery. This happens after the moderate success of Chandler’s first book, about a teacher who killed two students in self-defense but was made out to be “The White Witch of Morro Bay.”

“Devil House” is a true-crime story. But it’s also a novel about the tellers of true-crime stories – about the personal cost of writing about murder, how your story is only as good as your sources, and how horror sells. Darnielle explained during a recent appearance in Wichita that he focused on structure and nuance with this novel, alternating points of view and using first-, second- and third-person narrative. The result is a twisting, turning storyline that keeps the reader guessing and avoids cliche crime writing.

The novel’s retro, pulp-horror cover serves as a fitting ruse for what’s really inside, which is far beyond your average horror or even true-crime novel. This one blurs the line between fact and fiction, focusing on the imperfect nature of storytelling and the illusive nature of “the truth.”

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.