John Darnielle, the singer-songwriter of cult indie rock favorites The Mountain Goats, has a meaning for words. Fans hear in his lyrics everything they feel but can’t express. Of those I’ve heard screaming back at him at concerts, “People say friends don’t destroy each other, what do they know about friends?”
“Actually, I don’t think they’re your friends if they destroy you,” he tells me from his home in Durham, North Carolina. “But the function of a line like that is, well, that’s how it feels sometimes.”
Recording under the name Mountain Goats since 1991, Darnielle, 55, has released 20 studio albums under the name, the most recent being last year’s Dark in Here. He has also been writing novels for ten years. It’s a leap few singer-songwriters achieve, but Wolf in White Van (2014), his debut novel, was a New York Times bestseller, and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro called his work of “magnificently engraved”.
Darnielle’s third novel, Devil House, is out this month. It follows Gage Chandler, a true crime writer said to be descended from kings, as he delves into a murder case that took place at the eponymous Devil House in the California town of Milpitas. Darnielle, who was born in Indiana but raised in California, lived in Milpitas as a child. While the dark underbelly of the golden west narrated by its main stylistic influence, Joan Didion, would seem to be at the center of Devil House, Darnielle says he actually used softer childhood memories – like the restaurant at the edge of the bay that housed a seal called Sam – for the book.
Devil House confuses our current thirst for true crime, but the idea for the novel emerged when Darnielle heard of the “Castle Doctrine,” a “very old law that is currently used by American gun enthusiasts to mean I can shoot you if you walk on my property and I’m scared of you”. It used to be a law that allowed kings to kill anyone in their castle. A reader of medieval English chroniclers such as Thomas Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth, Darnielle began with a character who was always said to be descended from kings and grew from there.
His desire to immerse himself in the history of the doctrine of the castle was partly political. Darnielle says the way it is used in the United States today is to “give white people an excuse to shoot black people,” and that required interrogation. “My politics, in American terms, is far left,” he tells me. “It seems clear, I think, to everyone that the problems we face at a societal level will not be solved by the free market.”
Darnielle and his wife, Lalitree, who works for an academic publisher, have two children, Roman, 10, and Moses, seven. After Darnielle became a father, he wondered how it was possible that one in four women in the United States returned to work within two weeks of giving birth. “And the answer is – because Samuel Beckett saw this coming – you’re going to keep doing it,” he says. “You ask what it’s like to be an American. And it’s like living in any sort of Terry Gilliam world, where you’re like, ‘There’s too many things to be crazy about, and there’s only one me, so can maybe I’ll read a little Tolstoy.’
For Darnielle, “the most good for the greatest number seems to be a good principle. In America, you can’t say that without people saying, “So you apologize for Stalin!” which I am not,” he laughs. Indeed, Darnielle grew up with a stepfather whom he describes as “a Stalin apologist”, a member of the Communist Party with whom he had a complicated relationship.
In 2005, the Mountain Goats released The Sunset Tree, an album which told the story of Darnielle’s abusive childhood. In the liner notes, Darnielle writes that the album was “made possible by my stepfather, Mike Noonan (1940-2004): may the peace that eluded you in life be yours now”. The record was dedicated to young victims of abuse.
“To me, the first thing that’s true about him is that he hit his wife and his kid,” Darnielle says today of her stepdad. “That’s the most important fact about him. But also, I wouldn’t even know these progressive values without this guy.
The Sunset Tree, Darnielle says, “chooses not to feature that side of the picture too much because I’m sharing my story in the hopes that it will help other people. My first instinct when it died was to share that feeling. You know, that was the feeling I had: the guy who hit you will never do it again.
Darnielle’s parents separated when he was five, and from his father, a Catholic jazz musician, he got something else that anchors his worldview: Christianity. Twice in our conversation, Darnielle says we live in a “post-Dover Beach world”, referencing Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem. “The sea of faith has receded, and all of us – the most religious among us – have a deep suspicion that there is nothing there. That’s it. That we are an accident,” he says.
And yet, Darnielle prays to Jesus Christ and sometimes sings a little Hare Krishna. “My wife is in the next room and has to bite her lip because she hates this whole shredded thing,” he says at the end of a CS Lewis-inspired essay on faith and emotion . “I get his point, which is: you just love him because it makes you cry. And that’s true ! I am a person who likes to unearth something beautiful that makes me cry.
Capable of applying this kind of critical thinking to herself, Darnielle can exercise it on her peers. “One of my long-standing tendencies is to call nostalgia toxic poison,” he says. “I can’t stand to hear people say how much better everything was when they were young. Because what was better was that you were young.
As a novelist, he says, he feels young, and if on the one hand he aspires to be like Donna Tartt and “to be read for centuries to come”, on the other he likes “to imagine that my work is forgotten. And then later someone said, ‘You know who was kinda cool? This guy who’s exhausted.'”
John Darnielle’s Devil House is out now, published by Scribe.