Arguably no literary genre is so ethically fraught as true crime. Though by no means new – Truman Capote published In Cold Blood in 1965, while Norman Mailer”s Pulitzer Prize winner The Executioner’s Song appeared in 1979 – the category experienced exponential growth in the 2010s thanks to the success of the podcast Serial and streaming documentaries such as Making a Murderer and The Jinx. But along with this popular exposure came renewed criticisms about the ways in which true crime exploits victims and valorizes criminals. While many people find Netflix’s proliferating true-crime docuseries fodder for a night’s entertainment, they may not readily consider that their escapism is mined from the worst experiences of the people profiled. Nor may they appreciate the nuance that undergirds the stories, many of which are oversimplified for storytelling purposes or simple thrills.
John Darnielle appears cognizant of all this. In his third novel, the lead singer and songwriter of the indie group Mountain Goats has created an off-kilter narrative that examines some of the quandaries surrounding the genre while also serving as a chilling, horror-adjacent story about a writer who moves into a house where a horrendous double murder occurred more than three decades previously.
Gage Chandler is a thirty-seven-year-old writer descended from royalty – “a now-lost genealogy that took fifteen minutes to recite.” Despite his mother’s repeated insistence on this lineage, Chandler, an inveterate researcher by trade and disposition, has been unable to find any reference to royalty bearing his surname, which he notes at the outset is “a workingman’s name” often applied to candlemakers and “a long way from the castle.” (It is also the surname of one of the most famous authors of hardboiled detective fiction, an allusion that goes unmentioned but is clearly not accidental in Darnielle’s novel.) The historical discrepancies regarding Chandler’s monarchical heritage form only the first instance in which the line between fact and storytelling becomes blurred in the narrative.
Spurred on by his editor, Chandler purchases the eponymous property in Milpitas, a city in California made famous by the murder of a teenaged girl that was the subject of the 1986 film River’s Edge. Chandler has relocated from San Francisco to research the double homicide of a slumlord property owner and one of her prospective clients, a crime that is reputed to have Satanic overtones.
The murders in the novel took place in 1986, right around the time the so-called Satanic Panic was reaching its apogee in the U.S. A precursor of the modern-day QAnon conspiracy theories, the furor involved false accusations of widespread child abuse among daycare workers and others alleged to be participating in Satanic rituals, sexual deviance, and child sacrifice. Later shown to be a moral panic with no basis in fact, the rumours and allegations provided an easy explanation for inchoate terrors swirling in the culture at the time.
“Simple explanations are what people want when they’re scared,” one of the kids associated with Devil House tells Chandler in retrospect. About which Chandler himself muses, “The simple explanation that would have scratched several itches was that a cabal of Satan-worshipping teens had sacrificed a couple of innocent victims to the devil for kicks.”
In large measure, Darnielle’s novel is all about complicating this simple story. He traces the history of the property from its early days as a local diner to its brief stint as a newsagent and comics shop before becoming the porn emporium Monster Adult X. The location earned the name Devil House after the discovery of the two bodies among a plethora of graffiti and homemade artwork that suggested seven teens conspired to conduct a ritualistic Satanic murder. This simple explanation, based on nothing but rumours and circumstantial evidence, becomes the accepted version of events, though Chandler’s professional skepticism prevents him from buying into the story so readily. The writer realizes from experience that “there’s a considerable distance between the things we’re called to bear witness to and the things we’d prefer to see.”
Part of Chandler’s hesitation arises from an earlier book he wrote, The White Witch of Morro Bay, “the kind of true crime book around which small cults form.” The story of a high school teacher who was executed for murdering two of her students in her home, the White Witch proves just how muddy so many such stories can be. Though the murders evinced undeniable overkill – she stabbed one of the teens thirty-seven times with an oyster knife before dismembering and attempting to dispose of the bodies – the situation that led up to the crimes is shown to be more complex than the official explanations would have people believe.
These moral ambiguities form the backbone of Darnielle’s novel, which is told in a series of sections each adopting a different narrative approach. Some sections are told in the first person from Chandler’s point of view; the sections dealing with the White Witch are told in the second person from the teacher’s perspective and in Chandler’s first-person account of a letter he received from the mother of one of the dead boys. Perhaps the most confounding section in the novel involves a mock Medieval romance about a deposed king swearing vengeance on his murdered father, a narrative that could comprise an allegorical meditation on Chandler’s own familial heritage. This section is printed in stylized calligraphic type that makes it, if nothing else, difficult to read on the page.
But it is the reckoning with the human aspects of pursuing a career in true crime that resonates most clearly throughout the book. Who has the right to tell the stories of grisly crimes with actual victims and how does the teller avoid retraumatizing those left behind? How does narrating a version of a story obscure or alter certain aspects of that story? In any given telling, who gets to be the hero and who the villain? Do these categories ever overlap? Chandler recalls being told at a conference by a fellow “luminary” that true crime doesn’t feature villains, only heroes and their victims. “Everybody in the room laughed,” Chandler says. “It left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Chandler is a moralist who believes in the work he does but he is also clear about the perils involved in his chosen calling. And by burying these philosophical questions in the context of a horror narrative invoking the Satanic Panic in highly visceral ways – a number of the descriptions of violence in the book are prolonged and graphic – Darnielle manages to provoke the reader to thought even while ensuring an entertaining ride. He enacts, in other words, the very quandaries he poses.
“What happens when somebody tells a story that has real people in it?” Chandler asks. “What happens to the story; what happens to the teller; what happens to the people?” Perhaps only a work of fiction could address these questions without risking the very harm they imply. In creating such a novel, Darnielle has ensured that his readers will never again look at true crime in quite such a cavalier way.