When novelist and singer-songwriter John Darnielle was finishing his second novel, “Universal Harvester” in 2015, he unexpectedly stumbled upon the inspiration for his next book.
As he finished writing for the day in a small office in Durham, North Carolina, he took a good look at the surrounding neighborhood and began to notice all the new construction and businesses that had been built around him. Over a decade ago, he drove through this very city and passed this same mall, which was then home to several dilapidated buildings, one of which served very briefly as an adult book and video store with a hand-drawn sign, he remembered.
“I started telling myself these stories about why there is no sign that the building existed anymore and what happened to it,” Darnielle said during a recent phone interview. “Sure, you could try digging up and finding old photos of him, but he became less of a ghost. Was nothing. So that was a source of inspiration for me when I started thinking about whole stories that take place in places that you can’t even prove exists anymore.”
Explore this idea through the character, Gage Chandler, who is a true crime writer, in Darnielle’s third novel, “Devil House,” which hits stores January 25.
In Darnielle’s novel, the true crime story in Chandler’s latest book takes place in Milpitas, California, where a pair of grisly murders took place inside an empty adult book and video store in the early 1980s. authorities blamed the tragedy on a satanic cult due to a spray-painted pentagram and some other questionable artwork on the premises, no arrests were ever made. Years later, the building where the bloody scene occurred is now a random home and Chandler moves there to fully immerse himself in his investigative narrative.
As he slowly removes the multiple circumstances that led to the murders, as well as physically removing the carpet and wallpaper from the house, suspects emerge and the evolution of the building begins to reveal itself. Darnielle also mixes a bit of nonfiction into the book, peppering the real-life murder of Marcy Renee Conrad in Milpitas in 1981, which inspired the 1986 crime drama “River’s Edge” starring Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper. In “Devil House,” Darnielle weaves the two stories together, explaining the town’s resentment of how she was portrayed in the film and the community’s reluctance to talk to Chandler about yet another tragedy that has rocked their worlds.
In the fictional world of Darnielle’s novel, its protagonist Chandler wrote a book called “The White Witch of Morro Bay” about a teacher who is convicted of killing two students who broke into her home. As Chandler moves on to another story in a new town and a new home, he begins to wonder if he’s being responsible in his storytelling. The mother of one of the murdered students from her first book didn’t seem to think so.
So we asked Darnielle if she had been in the same position as her character: Would reading a long handwritten letter from the grieving mother of one of the students alter the way she would write about those involved in the Milpitas murders?
“It’s such a complicated question,” explains Darnielle. “On the one hand, you can say that the artist should say what they want… but then you get past that and you come to understand that of course anyone can say anything and that’s obvious, but then the responsibility becomes something much more. important. -ask above. The most interesting question is that responsibility. Some say there is no responsibility except to tell a good story. To some extent, I agree with that. You are an artist and it is your job to be entertaining and what people do with your art is up to them.”
Darnielle said she also faces a similar line of self-questioning when it comes to songwriting. He has fronted the folk-rock band The Mountain Goats, which he formed while living in Claremont, since the early ’90s. The band continues to perform and just released the studio album, “Dark in Here,” last year along with a pair of live albums called “The Jordan Lake Sessions”.
“I used to write a lot of songs with super unhealthy narrators, which is fun to do and some of my most beloved songs are these,” he said. “But every once in a while I have someone come to me and say, ‘Oh yeah, I totally relate to this,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, you weren’t supposed to relate to that, it’s more of a cautionary tale.'”
“Several people have asked me to play ‘No Children’ at their wedding and I don’t,” he said of his song, which is given a jazzy update on newly released live albums. “I’m not going to celebrate the prospect of an unhealthy home, even if it’s a joke. I mean, if people want to play it, that’s fine, but I’m not going to be the guy who’s there to help.”
Darnielle grew up in San Luis Obispo but later moved to Claremont and attended Claremont High School. He moved to Portland, Oregon for a while before moving back to Southern California and working at a hospital in Norwalk. He eventually earned a degree in English from Pitzer College. Through all of his odd jobs and education, he continued to create music and write. His first novel, “Black Sabbath: Master of Reality,” part of the 33 1/3 series of single album fiction books, was published in 2008. Although his two sons support him and his wife, photographer Lalitree Darnielle , quite busy, he’s also really into horror movies and even co-hosted his own podcast, “I Only Listen To Mountain Goats,” for a couple of years.
But it is writing that consumes most of his free time.
“My process probably looks like everyone else’s work process… I open the computer, spend too much time on social media, look at the clock, and then say, ‘Oh wow, I was going to write something, let me write 500 words here. ‘” he laughed, comparing his more scattershot writing process to that of his main character in “Devil House.” “My stories don’t usually work in a linear way. When ‘Wolf in White Van’ was put together, I had to sit on the floor and start cutting the printed manuscript into little parts and say, ‘What if this part goes here?'”
He is convinced that doing this digitally is still too risky, as one can easily lose track of drafts, or worse, permanently delete large chunks of text. He said he speaks from experience.
“If you do it in a physical space then you’re fine,” he said. “But sometimes when you step back and look down, you say, ‘What have I done? Man, am I crazy. It seems crazy. When I wrote ‘Wolf in White Van,’ I also had a very small baby, who every once in a while would just take off and roll over everything, which really was perfect.”