John Darnielle Explains His Cultural Influences

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Photo: Emily Bennett-Coles

John Darnielle has been putting out music for nearly two decades as the Mountain Goats, but this week he releases an excellent new novel, Wolf in White Van, which was just long-listed for the National Book Award The book traces backwards through the life of Sean Phillips, who — following a near-fatal incident that has left him disfigured — runs a play-by-mail role-playing game. Darnielle, an unabashed fan of heavy metal and horror films, walked us through some of his main influences

1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
My favorite movie, in part because I wrote a paper about it once accidentally. It was fresh in my head, and then my Greek tragedy final happened, and it was an open final where you could write about anything. What happens with characters in a Greek tragedy is they see all these signs that should tell them what not to do, but they can’t read the signs in time to escape their doom. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, there are things hanging on trees that are symbols — there’s the symbol that the guys paint on the side of the van. If they knew how to read that symbol, they’d know what not to do. But the only way they can find out how to read it is by going through the place that will destroy them.

2. Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers
That guy’s a genius — the feel of his scenes, these scenes with these long tracking shots. They remind me of Kubrick, but they’re not quite as obsessed with the still image. They’re more about movement. They seem to lead someplace; there’s a real lyricism to his panning shots. I think I was looking for that in a number of the scenes [in Wolf in White Van], especially the hospital scenes. I sort of want you to be able to see the development as something moves down a hall.

3. The Bride of Frankenstein
It’s the best of the Frankenstein movies because it’s got that incredible last scene where they kill themselves. Where the monsters decide — or he decides — not to live. If you ever see it in 35mm, it’s just gorgeous, this really just lush, black-and-white atmosphere. You can’t imagine a world without Frankenstein in it; Frankenstein is a thought that is symbolic of the entire modern condition. And Bride of Frankenstein is the best one. It’s the one that fixes all the notes.

4. Marvel comic books of the late ’70s
I almost mean comic book covers; I read a lot of comics, but the ones that I didn’t buy were the most interesting ones to me. I don’t think anybody was reading Son of Satan. You’d see it on the racks, you’d go, “This is weird. This is not like Thor or The Hulk or The Avengers.” It’s from a whole different cosmology, but there was a horror vein to it. Horror comics were a thing, and there were hearings in Congress about whether they were damaging, and that’s how the Comics Code was established. But the remnants of them in the ‘70s, sort of sitting there like these anomalies, these anachronisms, were inspiring to me just by being there. There's the ones you didn't have that you would look at and wonder whether you'd be a different sort of reader if you were reading those ones instead.

5. Merce Rodereda, Death in Spring
She’s a Catalan writer. 
Death in Spring is her last one, and it is a really bizarre story of these people who live in a strange village and their customs. It’s got a plot, but it’s more about these people who have a rite of passage that involves going into the water and scraping their faces against a rock. It’s very hard to follow. It doesn’t follow a lot of basic rules of nature: People can plant themselves and trees. It’s a short, bizarre, very lyrical book that left a huge impression on my writing a couple years ago.

6. Mercyful Fate
Mercyful Fate had an idea about how to make heavy metal that was different from everybody else’s, with all this giant piercing falsetto and these baroque, two-guitar structures. The songs didn’t sound like other people’s songs. They didn’t sound like Judas Priest, they didn’t sound like Iron Maiden, they didn’t sound like thrash bands. They had very much their own sort of quasi-classical aspirations towards the way they’d construct their songs. It’s the sort of idea that if you had it, usually you’d say, “Well, I’m not going to be able to make much of a living off this because this is a pretty bizarre idea,” but Mercyful Fate treated their work from the beginning like, “No, we can. Our idea is good, and nobody else has this idea, so we’re gonna do our own thing.”

7. Summoning
They’re sort of like Mercyful Fate in that, if your idea is to start a band where all the songs take place in the Tolkien universe, that is a very uncommercial idea. Your prospects are limited, and a lot of bands try to find some way to sell themselves. But if Summoning were to tell me, “We make these records because we like them, we make them for ourselves,” I would believe them absolutely.

8. Alexander Scriabin
He’s a Russian who had synesthesia who hears sound as color, and you can really hear this in his piano music. These very rich, dense, often slow [songs]. The sound of what he does is so different. It’s his own voice entirely.

9. Michael Whelan’s paintings
When I was in fifth and sixth grade, I was really getting into unicorns and stuff, and fantasy. I preferred it to science fiction — you know, impossible worlds far away with beautiful creatures. Michael Whelan is this unapologetically lush fantasist. They’re not like Lisa Frank in that they’re not quite as searing; his paintings have a real kindness to them. Even when there’s people with swords or whatever, they’re kind of very gentle.

10. William Gass
The main thing is the sound of his writing, which is incredibly well-turned sentences that have clearly been filed and polished and sanded until they’re perfect. One after another after another, there’s not a misstep. He has the sort of gift with which you might try to describe beautiful things, but that’s not what he’s into. He’s into writing about hateful people and their hateful lives. But they’re not extremely hateful; I think a lot of people when they write that story want to write about murderers or something very garish, but William Gass writes about petty, actual people. You can only take so much, so it’s kind of good he only writes a novel every ten or 20 years.

11. Chelsey Minnis, Poemland
This is a book of really modern poetry, and it’s really hard to understand. It has these whole-page-long ellipses. But when you read it, the sense of the person, or persona (hard to say), the very distinct feeling, comes as she keeps saying things. She’ll start a number of lines like, “This is …” and you don’t know what the ”this" is referring to. Is she talking about what the poem is, or is there some unvisualized reference that she can see and you can’t? It’s a very disorienting book. It’s very hard to figure it out because you can’t figure it out. You just sort of have to let it be what it is.