As novelist and singer-songwriter John Darnielle was finishing his second novel, “Universal Harvester” in 2015, he was unexpectedly struck by the inspiration for his next book.
As he finished writing for the day at a small office in Durham, North Carolina, he looked around the surrounding neighborhood and began noticing all the new construction and businesses that had popped up. developed around it. Over a decade ago, he drove through this same town and passed this very linear mall, then home to several dilapidated buildings, one of which very briefly served as a video library and adult bookstore with a sketchy sign drawn by hand, he recalls.
“I started telling myself these stories about why there’s no sign that the building even existed and what happened to it,” Darnielle said in a recent phone interview. “Of course, you could try digging up and finding old photos of this one, but it became less than a ghost. It was nothing. So it was an inspiration to me when I I started thinking about whole stories set in places that can’t even be proven to exist anymore.
He explores that idea through the character, Gage Chandler, who is a true crime writer, in Darnielle’s third novel, “Devil House,” which hits shelves Jan. 25.
In Darnielle’s novel, the true crime story of Chandler’s latest book is set in Milpitas, California, where two gruesome murders took place in a vacant adult video store and bookstore in the early 1980s. authorities blamed the tragedy on a Satanic cult due to a spray-painted pentagram and other questionable artwork at the scene, no arrests were ever made. Years later, the building where the bloody scene occurred is now a randomly knocked down house, and Chandler moves in to fully immerse himself in his investigative storytelling.
As he slowly unpacks the multi-layered 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 non-fiction into the book, bringing up 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 and explains the town’s resentment of how he was portrayed in the film and the community’s reluctance to speak with Chandler about another tragedy that shook their worlds. .
In the fictional world of Darnielle’s novel, its protagonist Chandler has written a book called “The White Witch of Morro Bay” about a teacher who is convicted of murdering two students who broke into her home. As Chandler moves on to another story in a new city and a new home, he begins to wonder if he is responsible for his storytelling. The mother of one of the murdered students in her first book didn’t seem to think so.
So we asked Darnielle if he had been in the same situation as his character: would reading a long handwritten letter from a grieving mother to one of the students change the way he writes about involved in the Milpitas murders?
“It’s such a complicated question,” says Darnielle. “On the one hand you can say that the artist has to say what he wants…but then you go beyond that and you come to understand that, of course, anyone can say anything and that’s obvious, but then responsibility becomes a much more developed question. -up question. The most interesting question is this responsibility. Some say that there is no responsibility except to tell a good story. To a certain 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 he also faced a similar line of questioning when it came to his writing. He has fronted the folk-rock group The Mountain Goats, which he formed while living in Claremont, since the early 90s. The group continues to perform and has just released the studio album “Dark in Here” last year with a pair of live albums dubbed “The Jordan Lake Sessions”.
“I used to write a lot of songs with super sick narrators, which is fun to do and some of my most beloved songs are those,” he said. “But every once in a while I have someone come up to me and say, ‘Oh yeah, I totally identify with that’ and I go, ‘Oh, you weren’t supposed to identify with that, c is more like a cautionary tale.
“A number of people have asked me to play ‘No Children’ at their wedding and I don’t,” he said of his song, which gets a jazzy update on live records. recently released. “I’m not going to celebrate the prospect of an unhealthy household, 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 up there to help it.
Darnielle grew up in San Luis Obispo but later moved to Claremont and attended Claremont High School. He moved to Portland, Oregon for a bit before returning to Southern California and working at a hospital in Norwalk. He eventually earned a degree in English from Pitzer College. Through all his odd jobs and studies, he continued to create music and write. His first novel, “Black Sabbath: Master of Reality,” which is part of the 33 1/3 series of books of fiction on individual albums, was published in 2008. Although his two sons keep it, he and his wife , photographer Lalitree Darnielle, busy enough, he’s also a big fan of horror movies and he even co-hosted his own podcast, “I Only Listen to Mountain Goats,” for a few years.
But it is writing that consumes most of his free time.
“My process is probably like everyone else’s work process…I open the computer, spend too much time on social media, look at the clock and then I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, I was going to write something, let me put 500 words here,’ he laughed, comparing his more scattered writing process to that of his lead character in ‘Devil House’. linear way. When “Wolf in White Van” came together, I had to sit on the floor and start cutting the printed manuscript into small parts and say, “What if this part goes here?”
He is adamant 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 says he speaks from experience.
“If you’re doing it in a physical space, then you’re cool,” he said. “But sometimes when you take a step back and look down, you’re like, ‘What have I done? Man, I’m crazy. It looks crazy. When I’m wrote ‘Wolf in White Van’, I also had a very young baby, who occasionally took off and rolled over it, which was really perfect.