“Devil House,” the new literary novel by John Darnielle about a true crime author who gains an edge by inhabiting the spaces where crimes took place, came out in January of this year from MCD. Since then, The Beat’s heard whispers about it from varied corners; we soon came to learn it takes place partially in Milpitas…
The Beat got a chance to speak with the bestselling author by phone early last week. Darnielle, who founded the band The Mountain Goats, was getting ready to leave for a European tour. He explained that “Devil House” has seven parts; for Parts 1, 3, 5, and sections of 6, the story is set in Milpitas.
It’s the Milpitas of the mid-1970s, when Darnielle’s family briefly lived here: “We lived in Milpitas right when they were building the freeway,” he recalled. He attended second grade at Burnett Elementary School, then later came back briefly when his mom and stepdad had to clear out the stepdad’s house. During that brief revisit, he saw “The Milpitas Monster” in the movie theater.
“The theater was full,” Darneille recalled. When I told him The Beat screened “The Milpitas Monster” back before the pandemic, Darnielle yelled out, “I’m starstruck!” He remembers one of the neighbor kids having known every single thing about the movie. “There was a 7-inch single of the theme song you could buy in record stores or department stores…It’s sort of an electric moment that is hard to imagine on this side of the internet.”
Back in the 70s, the Ford Motor plant was the town’s main employer, prior to the tech age. “It became a much different place than what it was,” Darnielle recalled. “A lot of people who code” came in. “It became a much bigger town that I haven’t seen,” he shared, saying Milpitas was at one time “a very small outpost of San Jose.”
The Milpitas of old holds valued real estate within Darnielle’s formative memories: “Milpitas would have been the second place I ever heard urban legends…” For example, he’d hear tall tales of some local lady whose leg had grown to 40 times its original size. “I was a very credulous kid; I would believe all this stuff.”
Darnielle feels a person’s original experiences of those kinds of stories are definitive, foundational. So for him, Milpitas will always carry a mythic charge.
“The beauty of Milpitas,” said Darnielle, “is it’s got a very specific local identity, but also almost no one’s ever heard of it. It’s almost mythical in that way. It’s real, you know? People live there and have lives there and so forth. It’s sort of like the American Midwest in that way.”
Darnielle’s first experiences as a writer revolved around writing poetry as a young man. In the beginning, he’d reapply his poems as song lyrics. Later on, he’d come to see lyric-writing as its own distinct literary form. But along the way, he always saw his writing and his music intermingling. In the 90s, before the digital age, he got to work professionally as a music critic. This led to him gaining the opportunity to write a novel. By now, he’s written three novels along with one novella.
For his new novel, he thought, “Milpitas is ideal. It’s a place I have lived that my narrator, who sort of makes his career on mythologizing – I can sort of infuse with mythology secondhand through him.”
“Devil House” is available wherever books are sold.