The Devil All the Time is a harrowing southern gothic-like novel that borders on straight-up horror. Written in 2011 by Donald Ray Pollock, this novel came to my attention due to the impending Netflix movie starring Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson. The movie looks dark as all get out and I had hopes that the book would be even darker. Thankfully for me and all fans of grisly, disgusting, and horrifying stories, this book should scratch all morbid itches you may have.
Now, while I would consider The Devil All the Time to be in the southern gothic wheelhouse, I will add the preamble that it doesn’t take place in the south. Rather, most of it takes place in either rural Ohio or rural West Virginia. Yet, the hallmarks of the subgenre are all there; deeply flawed characters, extreme poverty, run-down small towns, eccentric characters, etc. Yet, since it doesn’t technically take place in the southern United States, I suppose it should be called rural gothic instead (although that doesn’t have as much of a ring to it, in my opinion).
The Devil All the Time is a book made up of several vignettes that seem tangentially related at first but, at about two-thirds of the way through, connect and pay off in a big way. Being the dark and tragic tale it is with many southern gothic sentiments, comparisons to Cormac McCarthy abound. In fact, some are well warranted: the sparse prose and the suffocatingly violent and dark tone are present in both. Despite those similarities, it diverges enough in a way that tells a fantastic, twisted story that feels original.
The only downfall when compared to McCarthy is the lack of beautiful lines. The Devil All the Time is a plainly written novel with simple descriptions and the occasional simile. I have a love of complex and beautiful lines (I’m looking at you Blood Meridian), the plain manner in which Pollock’s story is presented makes sense and is even endearing, in a way/
The main players in The Devil All the Time are Arvin, a young man who’s the only real semblance of a protagonist. The story follows Arvin the most consistently, from youth to young adulthood, and from tragedy to tragedy. He’s a rural hero archetype; charming, kind of quiet, likes to work with his hands, and not afraid to use violence when necessary. Yet, throughout the story the perspective shifts to several others; from Carl the cigar-smoking snuff photographer who murders hitchhikers with his wife Sandy, to Roy, a preacher-turned-murderer-turned-carnival act, to the crooked ex-alcoholic Sheriff Bodecker.
Each one of the interconnected stories deals with an isolated theme on its own; a husband’s love for his wife, a man’s belief in the power of God, a communities capacity to trust those in power. Yet, it’s not the themes themselves which have been overdone time and time again but, rather, the delivery. In almost every theme that is presented, it is promptly subverted, often in terrible and maudlin ways.
This story is dark and brutal and I loved (and hated) every moment I spent in Ohio, West Virginia, and beyond. The Devil All the Time earns a bloody and well-earned 5 stars.
Read The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock