With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.
The reader: Long known as the songwriter and frontman for The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle just released his first novel, Wolf In White Van. The book’s narrator, Sean Phillips, suffers a terrible disfiguring accident, and while recovering, creates a role-playing game called Trace Italian. The A.V. Club asked Darnielle for a reading list related to Wolf In White Van, and he provided five books that are sitting on Sean’s shelf (some of which neither Sean, nor Darnielle, have ever read).
John Darnielle: I have that one in there to represent the part of Sean Phillips that is me. There’s a number of intersections between Sean and myself. I think that’s probably inevitable when you write in first person—you bring a piece of yourself to bear in some way. And when I was in seventh and eighth grade, I was a big science-fiction fan. I read it, and I read very impassioned editorials by science-fiction writers about how this is literature, and this counts as literature. I envisioned myself in this future fighting on these battle lines.
Stardance was one of the first books that was newly published that I read. I was reading Asimov, I was reading Heinlein—all that kind of stuff. But then there was this new one that sounded interesting by Spider and Jeanne Robinson, who were a married couple.
It was new stuff; it was on the edge. In a fair bit of the science fiction I read, there’d be the obligatory sex scene—like how they put it in films to get the R-rating. A seventh grader tries to read these, and be very sophisticated and everything, and understand something that’s a little beyond his understanding. I think my dude is sort of like that, in sort of trying to hit the stuff at a level he wasn’t actually able to meet it at, and finding stuff he doesn’t really get.
Sean remembers having read it in a parking lot. He remembers the idea of dancing to communicate, which is how I remember that book. This could be a totally false memory of the plot, but faulty memories are also part of Wolf In White Van. This idea of trying to communicate through gestures, to communicate with people who can’t understand what you’re trying to say, which is sort of a signal thing for Sean Phillips.
The A.V. Club: So you think he probably picked it up in middle school, and it’s been on his shelf ever since?
JD: This is not math I’ve done. I could ad-lib something like that, but this isn’t something I’ve really gone into. He goes to the book exchange as a grown-up, and meets one of his old friends, so maybe there? But I don’t know. He’s contemporaneous with me, so my guess would be, here’s the thing that I did, it’s not in the book, but I did a similar thing.
There was a thing called the Science Fiction Book Club when I was a young science-fiction fan. It was the same as the Warner Bros. music club—you send in a subscription card, they send you 12 books for a penny, and you’re obligated to buy three books over the next year. Then you get in trouble with your parents for signing up for this because you don’t have the money. It also destroys your credit rating completely, except it doesn’t, because you’re only 12. I imagine he, like I, would’ve gotten it as one of his 12 books for a penny.
JD: Every young science-fiction fan in the early ’80s knew about this book. You couldn’t escape it. I was transitioning out of that stuff into different literature at the time, so I never did wind up reading it. But Piers Anthony was hot as a pistol among people who were reading that stuff. And the cover, also. It’s this bizarre cover, with this winged, lion-faced creature, if I remember correctly, and then some kind of heroic figure. Sean talks a lot about book covers and how he thinks about them. He’s very into the idea of a cover of a book as sort of maybe being at least as productive as the text inside. A Spell For Chameleon—if I say that title to you by itself, what do you make of that? You can’t really do too much with it, unless you’ve read the book. And I haven’t. [Laughs.] I imagine him seeing it and thinking, “Is Chameleon a person’s name? Is there a definite article missing? Is it A Spell For The Chameleon? A Spell For A Chameleon?” This is the sort of thing he likes, a thing that raises all sorts of questions by itself in an effortless way.
AVC: This seems to be one of the few Ursula K. Le Guin books that wasn’t sci-fi.
JD: So this is a great book. Or, I should say, I remember it as one. I haven’t read it since 1978. Ursula K. Le Guin—you read her if you’re a young science-fiction enthusiast. She’s a really fine writer, and she wrote these books for young adults before she wrote one, I think, called The Dispossessed, which was for grown-ups. But she’d also written this little book called Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, which I read when I was a lonely eighth grader, when my peers who I’d known in grade school were going off to their various schools. I didn’t really make new friends. It was a very lonely year for me. I read a lot of books.
This was a book in which two loner, reader-types meet each other and have a relationship. And, if I remember correctly, part ways. But I read this thing, and it seemed like it was written for me. It was there to tell me that the solitary life I was leading mattered. This is the part of Sean that’s in me. He’s a solitary kid—he’s off to the edge of his peer group. He’s in high school most of the time, but I assume he would have read and projected himself into that book. And he would have come across it the same way I had. Ursula K. Le Guin is a very reliable, known-quantity name. If you read her books, you knew you were going to get something good from them.
AVC: Do you assume he’s read all of her sci-fi books as well?
JD: I would assume he’s read A Wizard Of Earthsea—just that one trilogy that, back when I was reading that stuff, everyone knew that was good.
AVC: This is kind of the odd one out, in that it’s not a novel, and something that’s known in Christian fundamentalist circles, but also metal circles. People read it as a guideline for cool bands to listen to.
JD: The God Of Rock is a screed. It’s a plated tract against rock music. It’s the sort of thing I’m fascinated by, because it wants to make a case, but it’s not by a guy who’s used to doing persuasive writing. Which is fine—a lot of people respond well to sermons, which are exhortations. You get caught up in the feeling, and you’re convinced by that. But that’s not really what books are for. Books are for the persuasive message. And The God Of Rock doesn’t really do that. It does a lot of “Look at this! Isn’t that awful! Look at this! Isn’t that awful!” A lot of anecdotal stuff. The thing that I’m most fascinated by with it, you’ll notice that “god” is in all lowercase. Lowercase g, lowercase o, lowercase d. Then the rest of the title is capitalized, so that he can get this little shot off. First he’s claiming that rock’s been elevated to god status, but then he’s claiming that it’s not a real god. But he’s the guy who did the elevating in the first place. I’m really fascinated by these guys.
Sean Phillips is not really as obsessed about it as I am, but he’s really into the idea that there’s a secret power to music. There’s something going on you don’t know about when you listen to stuff. He talks about this in the last chapter when he listens to Robin Trower’s Bridge Of Sighs record. The idea that there’s something lurking there. He also thinks a little deeper than the people who talk about backwards masking, or trying to get a secret message across. [There is a scene in Wolf In White Van that discusses backwards masking —ed.] He feels, whatever the message, nobody really knows what it is. There’s unknown currents.
I don’t know if he’s right about this—this is how he feels, that there are hidden texts inside the books he reads and the music he listens to that are maybe hidden to everybody. No one knows what they are or how they got there. This would be one of the books that he would read while teasing that idea around.
I’m really into evangelist types, and that guy, Michael Haynes—I ordered a “guide to the occult” thing from him, which was one of the most amazing things I ever got in the mail. It seems like it’s going to be this guide where he talks about stuff, but it was clearly printouts from a PowerPoint presentation or something that he would give. You remember the handout you used to see about Disney characters on acid or blue star acid? You’d see it at a doctor’s office, or if you worked at a hospital, it would sometimes make the rounds. Like a 10th-generation Xerox that would say: “Warning to parents, drug pushers have been handing out Disney pictures to kids because they like them. But they’ve got acid on them—they’re trying to give acid to our children.” It’s an early scare thing—I’m sure they’re still around. The last one I saw would have been early ’00s. I bet you on Snopes there’ll be something about the “blue star acid hoax.” It’s similar to when people said: “There are people putting razor blades in apples.” They had been copied and copied and copied, and looked all smudged and filthy, and it would say the drug pushers are trying to give children acid by putting the acid on Disney characters.
There was a germ of truth in this, insofar as there was acid that had Disney characters on it. But nobody was giving away the drugs for free. [Laughs.] Nobody was trying to give them to children. That was just a means of delivery. These things from Michael Haynes, these anti-occult things, are along the same lines. It’s like somebody standing up in front of a group and teaching as gospel truth an Internet legend that’s already been debunked thoroughly. [Laughs.]
I think he would have that book because he’s got this idea that there is some secret underneath something. Or he had this idea before the accident, there’s secrets underneath things, and he’s looking for them.
AVC: Is it interesting to hear someone make these ridiculous claims about your medium of expression, especially someone like you, who’s notorious for being a very personal songwriter?
JD: Well, it depends on the claim being made. But it’s all really interesting stuff to me. There’s some people—like the people in the talk show in my book—who believe that the devil is secretly putting messages in without the consent of the performer. Then there’s other people who used to think performers were trying to get messages in to corrupt the youth. All of those are really bizarre to people who write, which is pretty much everybody. I don’t think of songwriters as occupying some discrete sphere that’s incomprehensible to people who don’t write songs all the time. It’s an understandable thing. It’s a creative work. Everyone’s creative in some way. When you create, you take whatever idea you have and you give it life. The notion of trying to get a message across to try to get somebody to do something is absolutely alien, not only to me, but everyone I know, as a writer.
There are people who use art to persuade someone of a political point, or a moral point, but the idea that it would be to influence behavior in some cataclysmic way is really bizarre. But, at the same time, what’s interesting about that, when people say that, I take them to mean, “I, too, have had experiences”—say, of music—“that were incredibly powerful. This seems like such a powerful thing. There must be something more to it than it was just a song somebody made.” When people attribute mystical powers, the music made a child do something terrible, or whatever, I think what they’re actually doing is testifying to the power they themselves have felt listening to music. The idea that it must be bigger than that. Which is amazing. People use that information to make silly points. But the bedrock point is that we all know it feels like it must be some force from deep in the recesses of the Earth.
AVC: This has the most obvious resonance with Sean’s own imagination, especially the Trace Italian—the role-playing game that Sean creates in Wolf In White Van
JD: Again, it’s on his shelf because I had it on mine. I wanted to put some of the John Norman books, Gor, that he talks about, on the shelf. But I haven’t read them myself, and Sean also says that he hasn’t, either. He’s more interested in the covers, now. They seem to indicate a territory that he wants to know about but isn’t willing to explore.
But Lucifer’s Hammer is one of the best book titles ever. [Laughs.] That was why I bought it when I was in seventh or eight grade. Larry Niven was a known quantity. He wasn’t one of the mystic dudes like Harlan Ellison, who wouldn’t consider himself a mystic, but people who were vying for high-lit rep. He was just sort of a workman of novels that you would see in the drug store. And it was a really thrilling book. The Earth is threatened by a comet. Sean—his game [Trace Italian] is a post-apocalyptic game. He’s interested in big, giant cataclysms happening to people or places. I think he would not have been able to resist the cover of this book, which is the Earth about to get hit by a comet. [Laughs.] And it’s totally cool. The Earth is in peril, and it’s not going to escape, and it doesn’t escape.
That’s one of the reasons Sean likes it. It’s a cheat when you read a book where a comet is going to hit the Earth, and then they manage to get the comet not to hit the Earth, and they all win, and everyone’s a hero. You think—if you’re a young Sean Phillips—“What do you mean, you got the comet not to hit the Earth? If the comet’s going to hit the Earth, then end.” I think it’s what he thought. You’ve got to be fair. You’ve got to let the comet do what the comet wants to do, and then look at the aftermath. And that’s what that book does, if I remember correctly. This is why I had to look it up yesterday on Wikipedia, to check what actually was the deal with this book. [Laughs.] It’s been a long time, but I believe the comet does hit the Earth, and there’s a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff to sort out, which is what my dude is interested in.
AVC: What you just said—“You have to let the comet do what the comet wants to do, and deal with the aftermath”—that’s how Sean runs Trace Italian. People do what they have to do, and it’s up to him to sort out the aftermath.
JD: That’s his whole ideology. You do, or somebody else does, the thing that they’re bent on doing, and you figure out what the results of that are. It’s sort of like throwing dice. You can think all about what a dice roll is going to be, but you can’t influence it with your mind. Then you act according to whatever number falls.
AVC: That’s the end of the list—I assume other things on the bookshelf would be Robert E. Howard books, and…
JD: Yeah, I didn’t put any of those things in there because I wanted to go a little further beyond the world of the book. I looked at the book, I was like, “Okay, he mentions John Norman, he mentions Robert E. Howard, he mentions Ngaio Marsh.” But I take a little pride in my interviews, at least in doing my homework in doing something cool and fun. And, to me, just combing through the book and picking five I already mentioned would have been pretty cheap. [Laughs.] Because then you could have done that yourself. I’m not needed for that.
While I was writing, I was mentioning what I was doing, and somebody gave me the backlog of the entire Conan paperbacks, which sit here taunting me, because I’m not going to read them all. But I’m pretty interested by then. The Fabulous Warrior King—whose cover has Conan about to behead a serpent and what looks like a naked dead lady at his feet, and a live one behind him. And there’s a pterodactyl, which is so weird, because people and pterodactyls can’t coexist, as far as I know. Those are the obvious ones, but I wanted to pick some other stuff.
I don’t know how much people would have known for sure in the timeline of dinosaurs versus people in the ’20s and ’30s, especially a layman, how much sense of that he would have had.
Robert E. Howard is a fascinating dude. Do you know this book, Playing At The World? It’s a history of role-playing games.
JD: I learned all this stuff about Robert E. Howard. He used to basically cosplay. Him and people who were into his stuff—friends—would put on costumes and go into the hills and do sword battles and stuff. Like LARPing stuff. And they would take pictures of themselves doing it. So these pictures exist of Robert E. Howard doing these Conan battles in tube foothills of Texas. Super amazing.