Book Review: Devil House by John Darnielle

From John Darnielle comes Devil House, an epic novel about a writer and his search for the truth that will haunt your imagination. Doreen Sheridan reviews.

Gage Chandler is a true crime writer whose first big success came fairly early on in life, covering the details of the case that came to be known as the White Witch of Morro Bay. Gage had been three years old when high school teacher Diana Crane killed two students who had broken into her house and assaulted her. Her inexplicable decision to get rid of the bodies instead of calling the cops led to the state refusing to countenance her claim of self-defense. The prosecution instead wove a legend from the presence of various occult items in her home, painting her as a supernatural temptress whose murderous ways were finally ended when she was found with the dismembered remains of Gene Cupp and Jesse Jenkins. She was convicted and sent to the gas chamber by a jury composed of people in the grip of the Satanic Panic that was sweeping over 1980s America.

As a college undergraduate, Gage was understandably infuriated on Diana’s behalf, writing:

How, in this age, are grown-ups still afraid of a witch? Spells, curses, bloody sacrifices: none of them really believe in any of that, do they? It’s just for fun, that stuff. You had assumed everybody knew that. It seemed obvious, self-evident. There aren’t any witches. There are just the stories people tell each other, who knows why. But when you finally go to trial, almost a whole year from now, you’ll learn better, and feel trapped. Four days from now you’ll do what you have to do, and, when your story is assembled by the powers that have agreed to do the telling, meaningless details will be woven into a story that would seem absurd to anybody if they weren’t all proceeding backward from its bloody end.

Gage’s book was a solid seller, spawning a movie that increased his fortunes and allowed him to devote his time to writing more books in the genre. Since then Gage has gone where the stories have taken him. Eventually, that lands him in Milpitas, California, following a lead from his editor. On Halloween night 1986, a slumlord named Evelyn Gates and her prospective real estate buyer Marc Buckler were shockingly slaughtered in one of her properties, an abandoned porn store that had been eerily redecorated by squatters. The investigation into their murders ended quietly and with no convictions, possibly due to the town’s reluctance to return to the national spotlight after another recent brush with infamy. A local teenage murder had been turned into the critically acclaimed movie River’s Edge, raising the ire of residents who felt they’d been incorrectly and unjustly portrayed by the film. 

Several decades later, Gage is in town to investigate the lesser-known crime, to see whether he can sift out the truth and bring the real story to light. His process is both immersive and bizarre. Egged on by his editor, Gage buys the property Evelyn once owned, now turned into a residence, and sets about recreating the Devil House, as it was nicknamed at the time of the murders, from crime scene photos and descriptions:

You can do this to yourself, if you try hard enough: obsess over blueprints of houses whose original incarnations you never saw, memorize meaningless details of rooms you know only from pictures, sneak through hidden doors into imaginary spaces. Eventually it burrows into your skin, the place you’re attempting, remotely, to haunt. You fabricate empty memories of walking from room to room, testing out light switches, knocking on walls. If you stay up too late doing it, it starts to feel a little risky, but that’s the point of the exercise. It’s like staring at an optical illusion for longer than the seconds needed to make it work. When you close your eyes, it’s still there.

As Gage immerses himself in the story of the Devil House, teasing out a tale of four teenagers with a yearning for both security and freedom, his grasp on reality begins to falter, even as he begins to question what it means to write true crime, and what it means to see justice done. How far will he go to uncover the secrets of a place almost indelibly marred by gruesome, supernatural imagery? And what will he do once he finally comes face-to-face with the truth?

While the cover of this novel gives a schlocky 80s horror feel, this is a surprisingly sensitive, almost delicately haunting look at the responsibility that non-fiction writers have in dealing with the survivors of violence. It’s a book about how guilt and ethics can drive people madnot necessarily homicidally, but certainly enough to dissociate from reality in disturbing ways. It’s also a book about the complicated lives of American teenagers in the 1980s, the lives of kids who wanted to fit in or who wanted to escape, but most of all who wanted to survive. Complex, thought-provoking, and written with the use of various inventive literary forms, this is not your ordinary horror novel, though it will long haunt readers’ imaginations.

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