Trigger warning for description of domestic violence late in the book.
How do you tell a story? What do you put in or leave out? How should events be ordered? Who is the narrator? Every author has to answer these questions and more but, as John Darnielle shows us in Devil House, the authors of true crime stories have additional questions they have to wrestle with: how to portray the victims and the perpetrators; where to center the story; where to assign the blame; the legacy of the crime; and on. All of these questions swirl around true crime writer Gage Chandler in this book, getting in the way of his next project and forcing him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about telling terrible stories.
The pitch Gage gets from his editor is a slight twist on his usual formula. What Gage usually does is a combination of secondary research and interviews to capture the place and time of a crime on top of all the gory details. This time, his editor wants him to buy and move into the house where two people were brutally killed in the mid-1980s. At the time, the house was a recently closed porn shop, to add to the salaciousness of the whole thing. The house has been on and off the market ever since and has just come back up for sale again. Ashton, the editor, tells Gage this is the perfect next step for a new project. After some hemming and hawing, Gage takes the house and starts to work on recreating what happened more than a decade before.
It seems perfectly reasonable at the outset. The case has the same sort of local mythos that made his first book such a smash. The house/porn store was an embarrassment in its little town. When the store went out of business, it very briefly became a clubhouse for a group of teenagers who transformed the place into what sounds like the kind of extraordinary art project that adults just wouldn’t understand. After two people are killed on the premises, the rumor mill went into overtime, fueled by Satanic panic talk, strange rituals, a sword for a murder weapon—but no one was ever arrested in the case, much less charged and put on trial.
Gage is able to get his hands on some of the police records and evidence in the case. He tracks down some of the people who might have been involved. And yet, the story refuses to coalesce into a clear narrative. True crime usually follows a couple of formulas, but it’s usually pretty clear from the beginning whodunit. But Gage can’t figure out what happened. The more he digs, the less he seems to know about what happened at Monster Adult X. Instead of giving us a straight-forward narrative, Gage tries to put himself into the heads of the teenagers who transformed the porn store and might have murdered two people who walked into the transformed store, planning on flipping the property. We get a string of incomplete narratives that wander up and down the spectrum of veracity from probably true to outright fantasy. The twists at the end further transform this narrative into something profoundly thoughtful and unexpected.
This book is a puzzle. I’m not sure that I liked it, per se, but I very much appreciate the questions the narrator raises about what kind of story should be told, the stories audiences want, and the differences between the two. It looks very closely at who deserves to have their stories told by constantly zooming out to explain how victims and perpetrators came to find themselves in the same place, at the same time, in fatal circumstances. Above all, I think, Devil House says a lot about not rushing to judgment, even when we think we know everything we need to know.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.