John Darnielle on Horror, His Novel ‘Wolf in White Van,’ and the Enduring Appeal of Pasolini
We spoke over the phone with the author and Mountain Goats mastermind, who opened up about his love of horror flicks and watching art-house films at 12.
John Darnielle is the author of two works of fiction, 2008's Black Sabbath's Master of Reality and 2014's Wolf in White Van (which was excerpted in VICE). He has also released a staggering amount of music, going back to the early 90s. It's been a little tricky, that transition, because there's a great temptation to read the books through the songs of his band (and sometimes solo moniker), the Mountain Goats. It's not that there aren't shared preoccupations: mutual incomprehension between children and adults (that often spikes into psychological or physical violence); characters who crave aesthetic fulfillment in a world that can be drab and cruel; and young people who struggle to build meaningful lives in terrible circumstances, and who are set in opposition to blind, stupid, harmful institutions. But that only gets you so far. The trouble with getting hung up on the book-song relationship is that his novels are more like other people's novels than they are like his own songs.
So as books, what are these two novels like?
Master of Reality is slim—112 pages. And there's something about its size that makes it feel intimate, a container of secrets, a feeling that's amplified by its publication as part of the 33⅓ book series, which pairs a writer with a single album, usually in a nonfiction mode. It's as though you've found a secret book hiding behind a cover disguise that protects it from non-initiates. Narrated in diary-form by a teen locked in a mental health facility, Master of Reality is volatile, sad, and often quite funny, as the narrator goes on at length about his life and its relationship to the Black Sabbath album from which the book takes its title. Wolf in White Van—officially, Darnielle's debut novel, and a National Book Award nominee—is narrated by a character who has also spent time in an institutional medical setting. But the book, despite being only 224 pages, is a monster. It is an expansive, formally bold piece of work that moves through two decades of the narrator's life after his release from the hospital, while making continuous lateral moves into the world of a strange (and for some, dangerously enthralling) game the narrator has built—a massive, by-mail cousin to the computer-text adventures that were popular in the 1970s and early 1980s. Wolf in White Van is a powerful addition to recent literature dealing with the fallout from trauma, one that will appeal to fans of Scott Heim's Mysterious Skin (for the emotional openness and youthful acting out and aesthetic want) and Tom McCarthy's Remainder (for the response to trauma with the creation of massive, obliterating system).
Darnielle and I spoke last week by phone about Pasolini's Medea, his childhood experiences with art films, and the other futures that he might have had.
VICE: You're about to introduce Pasolini's Medea at Lincoln Center. How did that gig come about?
John Darnielle: They asked about presenting a movie. My taste in movies is generally not what other people expect of me. I love horror movies. I like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre—that's my favorite movie. They told me, "If you want to do Texas Chainsaw Massacre you can, but we did that last year." And I'm not current on movies—I mainly watch horror movies, the kind of stuff that I'm super into I don't think is what they're trying to screen at a film program. I don't fancy myself to be the guy going, "Oh, yes! I made them screen Silent Night, Deadly Night"—that's not my style. I thought about what I've enjoyed that they might be groovin' on screening, and I thought, I haven't watched Pasolini movies in years, but I used to really like him—especially when I was into Greek tragedy really heavily. Because he did two: He did Oedipus, and he did Medea. His Oedipus is fucking incredible—the murder scene, right, where he kills his father? In tragedy, there's this elevated tone that Pasolini rightly thinks brings none of the brutality to the stuff. And so when Oedipus kills his father, it's like something out of The Warriors. One guy meets another guy in the road and says, "You're in my goddamn way!" and kills him. It's really great.
Medea is unique, insofar as it's Maria Callas's only on-screen appearance. She's one of the great singers, and possibly the greatest diva who's ever lived, and has this incredible face, which exists a lot in photographs but not so much in films, right? And she's also in a very interesting place in her career, insofar as she has used a lot of her voice up, both by performing, and I think she was a cigarette smoker. So she's in the twilight of her sale-ability. In part, also, she's a woman, and in an opera—opera's a little more forgiving, and we weren't as caught up in youth culture then as we are now—but still, it's a thing of when you start to get old they don't offer you the same roles, you know? And Medea is explicitly about those sorts of questions. Medea is about a king who has discarded his older wife for a younger one. And Medea is arguing that she counts too, that she's a person, not somebody else's accessory. I don't know if you've seen the movie. It's so brutal and awesome—it's like a doom-metal record.
It's shocking. It's intensely queer and homoerotic, and it's extremely bloody. There's the scene of the male sacrifice near the beginning—
But there's this opening sequence that's kind of insufferable, right? It's very art house. The centaur is sitting there explaining everything in political terms to this child. They sort of immerse you in theory and thought, and bludgeon you with it so you're like, "OK, let me think about some of these things he's talking about a little bit." And then the next thing you see is this visceral scene, there's no dialogue at all, just blood and community and sacrifice. It's so great that people of Pasolini's generation took their theory so seriously. They're like, "No, no, no. The theory is talking about this."
Having said that, that opening sequence—I consider it insufferable.
A lot of the brutality is done through what we don't see. It's done through these edits, and then we see, like, meat. We see a guy, and then we see pieces of meat. It's shocking. My boyfriend is a horror fan, and he sat down to watch it with me the other night, and even he was covering his eyes a bit.
Pasolini really makes you feel it. He makes you smell it.
I've been having a lot of anxiety about how to present Pasolini because I'm a straight dude, I'm just a married guy, right? And Pasolini's sexuality is a huge part of who he is as a filmmaker. Nobody's out in Italy at this time, and Pasolini is very loudly out. But he's living and working in Italy, and he's celebrated. I sort of don't feel like I'm the guy qualified to be talking on that: How do you present something where you go, "Well, go read these guys, but it's really not my position to talk about it"—I'm having some anxiety about that.
Well, it's such a rich film, it seems like you could attack it from any number of angles.
But at the same time, you've got the ghost of Pasolini in the background going, "If you don't say this about me, you're not telling the truth about me."
Do you remember the first time you saw a Pasolini movie?
So I was super lucky when I was a kid. At Pitzer, there was a Sunday night film series at Avery Auditorium where they would show—I think it was usually a double-feature, but I can't remember. There was at least one movie a week on Sunday nights, and for most of the time when I was 12, 13, 14—super formative years—they were going on. They were showing Fassbinder, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok. They were showing Andy Warhol's Trash, which I saw when I was 14. And I'm sitting there looking at Jackie Curtis, right, who I know from Lou Reed songs. "Oh my god, there she is," and freaking the fuck out, it's like 1982, right? If you lived on the West Coast, you had no prayer of seeing these people unless you had somebody local who was determined to screen them, which in this case of Pitzer was some college students who were showing these movies.
That's crazy. How were you watching European art movies at a college at 12?
My stepfather is this figure who—one of my biggest regrets is, it's hard to present a person with whom you've experienced an abusive relationship, to give a 360-degree view—but he was a smart guy. He was making sure that I got exposed to culture. So when I was 12, I knew what I wanted to see. I was branching out, I tended to gravitate to the queer stuff that he was not into. Pasolini, that was my stuff. He liked Pasolini because Pasolini was a Marxist. I liked Pasolini because Pasolini likes blood.
That's the mystery of life—all the things you might've been. All the yous that you have been over the course of your life resolve into the one you are now. –John Darnielle
Pasolini's film has two endings. It's as though the audience has to choose between them, or in any case, consider the split possibilities. And here's where I'd like to start talking about Wolf in White Van, because at the heart of your novel there's this game called Trace Italian that the narrator, Sean, created, and the game has a Garden-of-Forking-Paths [by Jorge Luis Borges], Choose-Your-Own-Adventure sort of style—Sean has file cabinets filled with thousands of pre-determined decision points that create a vast world of possibilities for players. So: What is the impulse in these worlds with parallel, mutually exclusive possibilities that we find so compelling?
So this is what it does for me: When you write a song, because songs for me are a very propulsive process, they have a number of possibilities at first, right? And then you find the one, put it in the rhythm you like, not just musically, but there's a narrative, image-matic rhythm that you like, and you follow that. For me, it tends to happen very quickly—it just plays itself out and, boom, I'm done. I tend to finish songs in a day. Sometimes the beginning of it will sit around and gestate, but it's not something I'm sitting around for months doing and going, "Oh, well, do I want the guy to wear a mask or not wear a mask?" These are songs I deal with in a very performative way.
When you write a book, you have all these decisions to make, and you realize that you're in a space of incredible freedom where you can just write 60 pages that you know you're not going to use to explore the father's viewpoint, right? And write something from the perspective of the minister, who doesn't wind up being in the book. But you can do all this extra play. I feel like a movie is this same sort of big project, where as you're making it, you go, "Well, we could shoot this, or we could shoot this. How much time and money do we have?" Which is not something you ask in the book. You get your due date, but that's about it, so you can do whatever you have time for.
With Pasolini, I think, he's doing two versions because he can't pick. Because anybody's story has so many possibilities in it. That's the mystery of life—all the things you might've been. All the yous that you have been over the course of your life resolve into the one you are now. But you look at them and you think about the time you didn't go out to get more booze and you went, "No, I'm too drunk to drive." And you say, "But what if I'd died that night? What if I'd died? Or what if I was incredibly injured? It would've changed the course of my life."
It's crossing the street and you're not paying attention and the bus whisks by, and then you're inside that kind of shocking moment that only lasts a short while where you're like, "How close was I really to getting hit by that bus? Was I a split second away from—"
You know that Sarah Dougher song, "40 Hours"? It's about her leaving her marriage to discover a new identity for herself, and she drives 40 hours from I think San Antonio, Texas, to the West Coast, and she said, "Inside every house along the way, possibilities." You get that oceanic feeling, like, "In every house, more stories than I can possibly imagine."
And I think Pasolini is doing that with Medea. I think he's also exploring. He's telling us something about Greek tragedy because most of these stories—when the tragedians write their version, they're only writing their version, which sometimes is a local version, and sometimes can be a version where it's like, "Well, I have something of my own to bring to this."
But many of them write the same tragedies with different plot points. This is my favorite thing. Because it is your life. We sort of think of stories as so rigid, but you go, "Well, you know, in some versions of John Darnielle's story, he doesn't come out of his heroin overdoes in 1986, he never wakes up, nobody ever hears of him, and he dies." But in other versions, he recovers and is injured, and never really walks right, but he otherwise is the same John you know. And in the third version, right, and so forth—and these are all true, these are all possibilities. And I think Pasolini is talking about how the Greeks knew this, because I think Pasolini—like a lot of artists who engage with tragedy—comes to this realization, or maybe already had it going into it, that those guys were really ahead of the game. They really understood that when you tell a story, you are in the space of infinite possibility, and every one of them opens onto different implications, and they're all interesting.
Mark Doten is the author of The Infernal (Graywolf Press) and co-host of humorous literary podcast The Consolation Prize. Follow him on Twitter.
John Darnielle is in New York City for two events. He will introduce Pasolini's Medea at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Monday, August 31, and on Tuesday, September 1, he will read at the Strand bookstore for the launch of the paperback of Wolf in White Van (Picador).