Devil House by John Darnielle review – mysteries and rumours

A true-crime author investigates an occult double murder in this metafictional puzzle from the Mountain Goats frontman

Devil House begins with a proposal from true crime author Gage Chandler’s editor: a property is for sale in the California town of Milpitas. Abandoned after a spell as a pornographic book and video shop, it subsequently became the site of a little known, possibly occult double murder. The deadly weapon was a sword, and this was 1987: the peak of the satanic panic, when devil worship was supposedly rife and lurking in the grooves of every heavy metal record. Why doesn’t Gage move in, investigate the murders and write his next book?

This sets the stage for the third novel by American musician and author John Darnielle. Like its predecessor, Universal Harvester, Devil House presents as horror but spirals off, with mixed results, in several unexpected directions: it’s a critique of true crime and the impulses that inspire it, a fragmented character study and a metafictional puzzle. This last strand is the most intriguing, landing the novel in an interesting space somewhere between Atonement and the Serial podcast.

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