Exploring the Moral Landscape of John Darnielle’s Fictional Universe

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john darnielle

At heart, John Darnielle is a goth elder captivated by Chaucer and improv troupes. For 30 years, he’s found a home in chronicling the obscure, and sometimes tragic, lives of everyday people through song and text: self-destructive spouses, washed-up wrestlers, drug-dealer running backs, babies born in motel rooms. His first book, Wolf in White Van, longlisted for a National Book Award, tails Sean Phillips, a disfigured homebody who invents a fantasy, pay-by-mail RPG game that leads to a dead teenager; the follow-up, Universal Harvester, details Jeremy Heldt, a video store clerk discovering horrific vignettes strewn across the store’s VHS tapes.

The Darnielle-verse largely deals with horrors of lost and unknowable worlds before the internet wiped them away. His new novel, Devil House, builds off those same landscapes while calling on the taboo, and sometimes mystified, vestiges to rise out of their strip-mall sumps.

Devil House is an uber-meta, experimental true crime novel. It’s House of Leaves dipped in acid; Twin Peaks, if Twin Peaks was written by Dungeons and Dragons fanatics; an ambitious, thrilling installment in a short bibliography richly built off the mundane, ordinariness of human life and loneliness. In Devil House, the reader follows protagonist Gage Chandler, a true crime writer supposedly descended from kings, as he reckons with the fallout from is breakthrough book, The White Witch of Morro Bay, and its on-screen adaptation, while investigating a pair of murders amid the Reagan-era Satanic Panic in a small, California town.

In 2005, The New Yorker called Darnielle “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.” Three years later, he pivoted and wrote his first book: a rare, fictional installment in the 33 ⅓ book series about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, written from the perspective of a teenager trapped in an adolescent psychiatric center in the same decade and state in which Devil House is set.

Darnielle’s creative direction is a scholarly and practical one: all of his protagonists have to have jobs, because he doesn’t believe in writing characters that aren’t working, that aren’t like most of the adult world; he made an album of songs all derived from Bible verses; one section of Devil House is written entirely in Arthurian language, or, as he calls it, a “dimestore version of Middle English, but still a discursive, generous style of thought”;  he conjures a comparison of true crime writers’ absorptions of real-life gore to the contemporary plights of Facebook content moderators.

But Darnielle’s work joins the likes of entertainers attempting to achieve crossover appeal, though he’s not entirely interested in having his music and novel-writing successes intersect. “My ideal situation is somebody who can’t stand my band but reads my book and says, ‘He’s a good writer, but I don’t care for his music,’” he told me over the phone, chuckling.

Most artists would kill to release a critically acclaimed album, have a 20-year-old song become a TikTok trend (for Darnielle, it was fan-favorite “No Children”), and announce a highly anticipated novel all within six months of each other, but Darnielle is also hyper aware of the territory that comes from crossing over into a different discipline and the question of whether his fans in one medium would exist without the success of the other. “This used to happen a lot in the 1970s. Somebody who was big in movies would get a record contract. I think at least three people from Welcome Back Kotter had albums,” he added. “When I was a kid, I used to always think that I would never trust anybody who bought the record and was a fan of the show. I would assume that they were giving me something I didn’t deserve.”

Violence and exploitation have gone hand in hand for decades, because people like to consummate their flirtation with the unknown.

Darnielle understands California, the epidemic of fascination, and retrospect in ways most artists don’t. His characters’ troubles don’t lean on the handiwork of creatures or killers; the terror in his books come from the absurd, plausible misanthropies and randomness of our own lives and the choices we make. He’s anti-nostalgia, but pro-plagency.

In Devil House, Darnielle’s not just building Chandler’s entire world, but he’s excavating the deeper, unresolved parts of his own past, returning to the places where he naively abandoned the magic because he simply was too young to know it was magic. “One reason that places you were when you were younger resonate [now] is that you spent a long time not really understanding them. The glow was mystery,” Darnielle said. “Whereas, once you’ve grown up, you know too much to be mystified. With things from your past, when you were a child, they retain the history just from you having known less about the world when you first saw them.”

Devil House is set in a world familiar to Darnielle: Satanic Panic, a 1980s epidemic of moral hysteria that resulted in over 12,000 cases of Satanic ritual abuse. The public’s alarm saw heights of claims that devil worshippers among America’s rich elite were abducting children for occult sacrifice. At the bottom of it, anything that could be hastily, or even sparsely, linked to satanism, like board games, heavy metal, and cable programming, was ostracized and marooned.

Darnielle’s own creative projects have alluded to satanism as far back as 2002, when he ended “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” the opening track of the acclaimed Mountain Goats album, All Hail West Texas, by exclaiming “Hail Satan!” repeatedly. But his relationship with SRAs hits closer to home than the fictional landscape in which he’s long set his work. “I was a psych nurse in training [during Satanic Panic],” Darnielle added. “I worked in a children’s unit, so I was right there in the middle of everything.”

Though the post-Manson/Zodiac darkness of 1980s California ushered in a wave of reckless crime and inherited terror, the reporting it conjured wasn’t mainstream. Instead, true crime was, in Darnielle’s words, “a small, global beat with a bunch of aficionados who engaged it,” not the seven-figure conglomerate of podcasts, multi-book deals, and Wikipedia rabbit holes it’s become. “Everything is sort of accelerated at this point in history where, if you have a thing you want to get into, it’s pretty easy to find the other people who are also intuitive to find a whole community,” Darnielle said. “My interest [in true crime] was sort of goth-y. When you’re a young goth, you find serial killers intense, it becomes sort of a religious totem of faith. You’re interested in that stuff, but most of the writing wasn’t really great. True crime is having a moment, but it was a thing I was only passively, casually interested in when I was 18 or 19.”

Devil House arrives on the heels of a true crime surge in the United States. Streaming services, especially Netflix, have capitalized on spiked interest in recent years, investing in multi-episode documentaries about Richard Ramirez, Ted Bundy, and David Berkowitz. Even Hulu attempted to absorb views by releasing a one-off documentary about the Astroworld tragedy not even a month after it occurred (it was later pulled). Gore and devastation, and the mystery of it, sells. Violence and exploitation have gone hand in hand for decades, because people like to consummate their flirtation with the unknown.

“The author of true crime books has to perform a large degree of outrage about the thing that they’re writing about.”

But now, with the help of mass-accessibility via the internet, the truth we uncover can sometimes unsettle our notions about what scope true crime has across the world, exposing the gruesomeness and inequity of it all. “I think a lot about the moral costs of things. I’m the guy who was around when Daniel Pearl was murdered, in the early days of the animated GIF, and, on forums, you would find somebody that had the beheading of Pearl set as their avatar,” Darnielle said of our true crime indulgences before Google got big. “You couldn’t not see it, because it would flash before you. I remember when Budd Dwyer committed suicide at a news conference in the 1980s,” he added. “The news station in California stopped the footage just as he got the barrel of the gun in his mouth, but they should’ve stopped it a little earlier, because they let the sound run.”

Devil House aligns itself with the famous true crime novels of its era, like Graysmith’s Zodiac and Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, while reckoning with the work those books have done. Rather than unload facts and answer every question, Darnielle asks the reader to interrogate the ethics behind true crime resolutions and the journey someone must take to wrap up an unsolved killing with a worthy payoff. The soul of the novel is a murdered teenager’s mother sending a letter to Chandler, illustrating how his portrayal of her child has made it impossible for her to heal in the wake of his murder.

As Chandler pieces together the details of the Milpitas double-murder, he’s faced with toeing the line between fact versus fiction, a romanticized version of what occurred versus the stark truth that might not even be truth at all. It parallels the exaggeration in biopics, the grim reality of a life or a death being unsellable as is. “The author of true crime books has to perform a large degree of outrage about the thing that they’re writing about,” Darnielle said. “They have to make you feel outraged, and the way they do that is by sharing it.”

All of Darnielle’s books exist in the same universe; there’s a pipeline from Wolf in White Van to Devil House. Amid the moral landscape Gage Chandler traverses, the world Sean Phillips understands is built through the fantasy of role-playing games that were once caught at the epicenter of early-1980s hysteria functioning within it.

On Twitter, Darnielle sporadically talks about his interest in RPGs—his pinned tweet reads: “I want to play Magic: the Gathering”—and, in 2019, he released an album called In League With Dragons, which worked through the mythos of Dungeons and Dragons, though Darnielle never played D&D before writing Wolf in White Van. “I played one session of Dungeons and Dragons in seventh grade, when it was a fairly new game, so 1980 or 1979, but I really was not into how easy it was to die,” Darnielle said. “My character attacked a ghost instead of running away, and the Dungeon Master was like, ‘Hey you don’t have enough strength to battle a ghost,’ and I said, ‘Well, you know everybody has a chance,’ but [in the game] that’s not really true.”

Instead of statistics-based games, like D&D, Darnielle is interested in identity-based role-playing that requires morality-based decisions and ethical improvisation. “Ten years ago, I got invited to play at Second City, on their yearly benefit that they do in December,” he said. “It was the 24-hour improv thing that they do, and I stuck around for most of it. Watching these improv [troupes] and hanging out with them backstage, I got incredibly inspired by what they do, by how they go out there and make something from nothing.”

By acting on the fly and convincing the audience that these random characters hold so much depth, Darnielle was able to learn from those actors and translate their processes onto his own character-building, leading to such dynamic, layered protagonists and supporting casts. “When I’m writing a page and I have a character, I ask five questions about anything that happens. You do some real basic improv/RPG-building, where you ask questions as you go,” he added. “If you’re doing it right, every question opens on to five or six more questions. You answer them in decision trees and wind up somewhere interesting. And then, that’s where you hang out with the magic.”

Just like the games he plays, there’s an optimism always at play in Darnielle’s work: the philosophy that people can be gracefully odd and still search deep within their own curiosities to find gold within mundanity, even if they’re trapped in an unforgiving place, and that there’s still something sentimental and rewarding about solving the puzzle on your own terms. “One reason that video games are less interesting to me now is you can’t live in a world where the video game hasn’t been solved,” he said. “The same thing has happened with Magic: The Gathering. When a new set of cards comes in, the metagame changes and there’s a way of solving that metagame. But now, with the internet, the metagame is solved within 12 hours. And that takes away a great deal of fun for me.”

On Twitter, after we got off the phone with each other, Darnielle shared a picture of “Horse Mackerel Onslaught” written on a notepad, an agenda as open-ended as Devil House’s resolution, and the replies became populated by devout people guessing. “I have this romantic notion of people playing a game and figuring it out as they play,” he added. “Because, what can really make for [an] exciting narrative is when you’re able to inhabit a space that still inspires wonder and provokes questions, instead of writing about something you’re being didactic about, where you already know what you want to say.”

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