Devil House by John Darnielle

In Devil House, Gage Chandler, a writer of true crime novels, is asked to write about a crime that, at first, seems right up his alley. He moves into the house in which the crimes took place, a house that had many facades over the years, most notably the porn shop it was before it became abandoned and became a murder scene. While living in it and remodeling so it would look as close as possible to the way it did at the time of the murders and digging deep into the true story of what happened all those years ago, he is faced with a dilemma: what can a true crime writer do when he believes it is for the best to leave the truth in the shadows.

“What are we willing to trade for a clear view of things? What are the chances we’ll regret the bargain later on?”

Not only is Devil House about the double murder of a landlady and a potential buyer that took place in the abandoned porn shop that Gage eventually finds himself living in, remodeled to be an acceptable home, but we are also told the story of The White Witch of Morro Bay, which was Gage’s first book written about a case he was familiar with from his childhood. The horror story told on the playground was of a teacher who was actually a witch, and she lured two boys to her home in order to kill them for her rituals. The true story being a teacher who finds herself in a terrifying incident where two of her students break into her house to rob her and she kills them in self-defense (though very brutally). The horror story told about Devil House was a group of teenagers killing two adults in a Satanic sacrifice. The story Gage tells us is about a group of teens dressing up the shop, which had become their sort of clubhouse, to look a bit Satanic in order to scare away any prospective buyers because one of their friends was homeless and was living in the store. Could this friend have killed the adults in a desperate attempt to keep his “home” safe? Could the teens conspired together to kill the adults? Or is this even the true story?

“Nobody cares about the actual details of anything, they just want the feeling they get when the story punches their buttons.”

In reality, this isn’t a book about solving a crime that went cold. To me, this book was about 1) the way we mythologize horrendous crimes and 2) the way every form of media that profits off of these crimes end up minimalizing the lives of the victim’s and reopen painful wounds for the victim’s families. We talk about these people only in the context of whatever horrible event took place, stripping their entire being down to a single word: victim, onlooker, killer/monster. In reality, these people are so much more than who they were at that particular moment in time. But that’s the only time of their life that we have any interest in. We don’t know them, and we will never know them as anything but victim, onlooker, or killer.

“That was the problem with my book, you said. Everything about it was real except for the people, who could only be one way for me because I had a story to tell, but the story was bigger than that, and the people were real, not characters in a movie whose lives were only important when they were doing something awful.”

The White Witch of Morro Bay and Devil House are similar in that they both became a bit like a local legend. Witches and rituals, Satanists and sacrifices. But I think they fit together in this book because as Gage is living in the murder house, he gets a long letter from the mother of one of the boys who was killed by the teacher (aka the White Witch). I think Gage’s uncertainty about writing the true story of what happened in the abandoned porn store was already a cloud in his mind, but this letter made that cloud much heavier. She tells him more about Jesse, her son, who Gage cast as the adrift teenager, abused by his father, desperate for a friend, any friend, even a dangerous one like Gene. She tells him who Jesse was to her, and how his book erased the boy he truly was, the man he could have been, and made him into a caricature. She tells him about the pain and the guilt she lived with constantly even before Jesse’s death which only got worse afterwards. She tells him about the pain his book caused her, boiling her life and her son’s life down to the worst bits, as if those were the only ones that matter. I can only assume it made Gage even more hesitant to tell the truth of what happened at Devil House and even a bit protective of the people involved in the story he carefully dug up from the past. Because these are people, not characters whose lives only matter to further the storyline.

“Those of us on this side of the disaster, we get so dazzled by the fireworks, by the conflagration, that we don’t see the gigantic expanse over there on the other side of the flames, but people have to live there.”

Overall, I’d say this was a very though-provoking book, possibly the most thought-provoking book I’ve read in a while. I’m a fan of true crime books and shows, and it did make me look back and see that the victims are often glossed over. Do their family members receive any sort of compensation when the most horrific incident in their lives get made into a book, tv show, or movie? Does anyone think of them? I think, if I were to choose a quote from Devil House that stood out to me as a sort of lesson to take away from the story, it would be this:

“Stories in which something ugly bursts out from the confines of its sac are necessarily about every person inside the blast area.”

I still believe true crime stories are important and telling them is necessary. We need to be reminded that the people who commit these crimes aren’t monsters. They are human, deeply pained or unhinged, but still human. But we also need to remember and respect the lives of those that were cut short too soon. We shouldn’t be okay with letting them go down in history as “victim.” They were so much more than that and continue to be more than that in the hearts of those that knew them. We need to find that balance. Maybe it’s impossible to tell these horrific stories without a single person feeling any pain, but there must be a way to alleviate some of it. We could at least try.

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