An author with a blazing style, one of the head honchos over at the magnificent Flash Fiction Offensive, and here to eulogise Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time, welcome James “Jim” Shaffer to Messy Business.
Hi Jim, we’re talking about The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. What’s the setup?
Great to be here, Jason. Think “rural Gothic” with hints of sulfurous noir bubbling to the surface like a bloated floater. Pollock riddles this saga with dubious, unhinged characters you wouldn’t sit next to during lunch, let alone want to meet your sister—pedophiles, murderers, a husband and wife team of sex-crazed serial killers; a corrupt, vengeful county sheriff, and mentally-disturbed preachers. So hold onto your hat.
This mixed bag of hardened criminals and demented nut-cases takes us on a wild, circuitous ride across the Midwest, into the deep South, stretches down to Florida, back north to West Virginia: and finally returns to the story’s roots—the frightening backwoods town of Knockemstiff, Ohio—where Pollock himself was born in late 1954, and spent his formative years.
Though first published by Doubleday in 2011, Pollock starts this devilish journey shortly after WWII—and drops his first poor characters, including a young boy named Arvin, in this backwater hell hole. While this novel is naturally fiction, Pollock uncharitably describes his hometown in the book’s prologue: “Four hundred or so people lived in Knockemstiff in 1957, nearly all of them connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another, be it lust or necessity or just plain ignorance.”
Ignorance, isolation, and religious superstition set the opening tone. Just a blip on the map, Knockemstif sits on the plateau edge of the Appalachian Mountains, south of Columbus and east of Cincinnati—and not far north from the neighboring borders of West Virginia and Kentucky. If a town named Knockemstiff sounds odd, Jason, you may want to consider this: Not a living soul knows for sure how this community got its name.
Dark, Gothic noir with a religious bent coursing through it. Is the novel, as Flannery O’Connor would term such a beast, “Christ-haunted?” If so, in what way?
The Appalachian region Pollock depicts in the novel is certainly Christ-Haunted, as I interpret the term. Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, O’Connor was a Roman Catholic swimming in a sea of Protestants. Organized religion tends to promise troubled people answers, as well as “salvation” and a better “afterlife.” After losing the Civil War, people from the South suffered an identity crisis. Many had sacrificed, fought and died for a cause they believed was “just.” Haunted by the past, like millions have done for centuries, O’Connor and many southerners looked to God, religious rituals, their bibles and religious leaders for answers.
As a devout Catholic, O’Connor didn’t just attend Mass on Sundays—she attended every day. Her daily life was filled with “religious thought.” From 1956 through 1964, she wrote more than one hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers.
The first characters we meet in Pollock’s novel are Willard Russell—his wife Charlotte, and son Arvin Eugene. Recently returned from WWII, Willard’s also haunted by his past, what he’s seen in the war, and is struggling for answers. And seeking a bit of solitude and a place for self-reflection, Willard hauls them off to Knockemstiff.
The Russells rent a dilapidated farmhouse surrounded by dense forest, atop the town’s Baum Hill. Willard clears a patch of woods behind their house—except for one huge log … “the remains of a big red oak that had fallen years before.” He treats the fallen oak as an altar. And here at his newfound “prayer log” Willard spends countless hours on his knees crying out to God—
A god who never answers.
But the people of Knockemstiff, including the newly-arrived Willard aren’t anywhere near as educated as Flannery O’Connor. Desperate for God’s attention, Willard ups the ante: he starts pouring fresh animal blood over his prayer log altar, and erects wooden crosses where he hangs roadkill carcasses.
Against Charlotte’s wishes, Willard routinely drags young Arvin to the prayer log with him. Charlotte cautions Willard, “too much religion could be as bad as too little, maybe worse ….”
Yet compared to itinerant evangelist Roy Laferty, Willard seems almost sane. Seeking to test his faith, Laferty brazenly dumps a jar-full of spiders on his head. This preacher also becomes convinced that he can raise the dead. And to prove his point, he’s willing to commit murder. How do you think that brilliant scheme turns out?
I was raised in a spiritual home, at first in rural Pennsylvania. Not one as intense as Arvin’s, but in some ways similar. So although this book’s just started, I’m worried shitless about Arvin Eugene’s future.
If the war has driven Willard’s increase in religiosity, then what drives Laferty’s?
Pollock’s plot arcs initially feel like a wide-haphazard circle. But actually he’s etching a well-controlled, fierce loop—that turns back on itself like a snake eating its tail—with ugly consequences. I described the preachers in this drama as mentally-disturbed: and Laferty’s one of two who churn our stomachs—but in completely different ways.
Pollock doesn’t reveal why or how Roy Laferty becomes a preacher, but in the churches where I grew up, he fits the tradition of the “visiting evangelist.” Evangelists travel from town-to-town; and church-to-church. Often they’ll pitch tents. Evangelists typically travel with an entourage that includes musical performers—and tend to get treated either like rock stars or circus sideshow freaks.
Roy’s faithful sidekick in this wandering freak show is his cousin Theodore, who strums a mean guitar. Lurking behind Roy in the semi-darkness, Theodore performs from a wheelchair, adding eerie background music to Roy’s firey sermons.
Why does Theodore play from a wheelchair?
Because attempting to prove his faith, Theodore once chugged a bottle of anti-freeze. Another brilliant scheme gone wrong.
Invited by the local church to inject a spirit of “revival” into its sluggish souls, Laferty punctuates a “hellfire and damnation” message with his shocking spider act—and sends the sleepy congregants jumping to their feet. Revival’s here! Hallelujah! The spirit of God is moving—
Never mind most of them are fleeing the scuddling spiders.
Roy’s not malicious … more like the village idiot, highly impressionable. But misery loves company, and Theodore’s got issues. So when delusional Roy announces God’s now given him the power to resurrect the dead? Theodore eggs him on.
While Roy Laferty’s getting played like a sacrificial lamb, devious preacher Preston Teagardin is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Knowing right from wrong, the thirty-ish, portly Teagardin is one twisted bastard. Though he’s got a teenage wife, this turd lusts for even younger flesh. Cloaked in the religious mantle of esteemed spiritual adviser, he lures, seduces, and fucks young impressionable girls in the front seat of his fancy sports car. And his wicked actions spawn hellacious consequences.
On one hand Pollock’s morphed a “morality tale”—a conflict between good and evil—with a heavy dose of Chaos Theory. Shit Happens. But in classic gothic fashion, his odyssey also ships us on quests for dark revenge. These twisted threads make me shout, “Hot damn. Hell, yeah!”
Because one man’s devil can prove another man’s saviour.
Is the small town flock drawn to the preachers’ religion, or is religion the sideshow to the magic tricks? What is the flock missing to draw them to such characters?
Isolation and religion prove deeply entwined in this novel, Jason. In the rural farming region where I was raised, the local rallying point was the country church—a place to socialize on one hand. And a place to practice long-held religious traditions on the other.
Likewise, before Pollock leads us on our dark romp through the Midwest, the South and Florida, we spend most of our time with Knockemstiff’s 400 inhabitants—or in Coal Creek, West Virginia—another rural outpost 75 miles southeast of our little hell hole. Even today, only 12 states have fewer inhabitants than West Virginia. And while Ohio’s population has bloomed to nearly 12 million people, with the majority living in the north, less than 2 million people live in West Virginia. By comparison, in 1950, nearly a million people called Cleveland, Ohio home.
Even during the 1950s, people in small communities like Knockemstiff didn’t have many job options—especially women. Choices about who to date or who to marry? Slim to none. And other than getting drunk—or getting laid if they were lucky, almost no “entertainment” choices whatsoever.
Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, morals or spiritual values, “organized religion” typically steps in and fills some of these social vacuums. Laferty’s Traveling Wilburys bring their insane act to Coal Creek, West Virginia at the invitation of a local minister—and his “so-called flock” has no choice in the matter: other than to stay home. Only 58 people attend this event the evening Laferty unleashes his spiders.And in a near-unanimous rout, 57 members of this jury would have preferred Roy’s Freakshow never came to town. But the event sparks consequences.
With the exception of Arvin Eugene Russell, Pollock’s more concerned about “cause and effect,” the “abuse of power” and “pure chance” than people’s motivations or personal beliefs. He launches this book with a seven-page prologue that hits us hard and fast. Pollock unites Isolation, Ignorance, “Religious ideas” and Violence—and wields them like a four-pronged pitch fork.
Talk about Arvin Eugene Russell’s role in the story.
Pollock dumps Arvin in Knockemstiff when the lad is only four—too young to know that he’s been fucked. But by the time this kid turns nine, he’s starting to get the picture. Lucky for Arvin though, he’s got a lot more fries in his Happy Meal than Roy Laferty and Theodore.
Even before his exposure to the horrors of WWII, Pollock leads us to believe Willard harbors a violent streak. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” is not a verse you’ll find in the Willard Russell version of the bible. And Willard zealously strives to shape Arvin in his own image.
Because they have no “kin,” no blood relations in Knockemstiff, the Russells are viewed as “outsiders.” Arvin has no friends. No play dates. No invites to dinner. And no one ever visits the Russells. When Arvin comes home with a black eye after a fight on the school bus, Willard accuses Arvin of being soft. “Those boys might be bigger than you, but the next time one of ’em starts his shit, I want you to finish it.”
Willard’s not simply singing to the metaphorical choir … or his congregation of one lone son: he practices what he preaches. And revenge he teaches Arvin is a matter of “time and place.”
During a routine battle with the Devil at the prayer log, two local hunters stumble upon Willard and Arvin praying. The mouthy one, Lucas, says, “Hell, they havin’ them a little revival meeting…shit. I’m thinking now would be a good time to pay his old lady a visit. She probably laying over in bed right now keeping it warm for me.”
Arvin knows from Lucas’s tone this man has just insulted Charlotte and his father. But Willard does nothing. He just keeps on praying. After the prayer log bout, Willard grabs Arvin for a trip into town to buy gas for the truck. So Arvin’s puzzled when they zip past the station and into the parking lot at The Bull Pen, a shit-hole bar. Before the truck stops rolling, Willard jumps out—he’s in hot pursuit of rude, crude Lucas. His sidekick hunter escapes, tearing out in his car.
Willard beats Lucas so bad he spends the rest of his days with a coffee can looped around his neck to catch his perpetual drool.
Back inside the truck, Willard grabs a rag and wipes his bloody hands: “You remember what I told you the other day?”
“About them boys on the bus?” Arvin asks. Willard nods. “Well, that’s what I meant. You just got to pick the right time … they’s a lot of no-good sonofabitches out there.”
Willard adores Charlotte above all else. But Charlotte’s got a problem. And Willard wants God’s help. When God doesn’t answer? Willard doesn’t reserve his fists for only the unrighteous. As his frustrations mount, he takes to beating Arvin … and later sinks into remorse. While Willard apologizes, like many abusers, he lays a guilt trip on the boy: You’re not praying hard enough. Arvin eventually accepts the blows and harsh words “as part of the life they were living now.”
Nearly every aspect of Willard’s daily life in Knockemstiff proves a bloody mess. Although the Russells live in a farmhouse, Willard works in a slaughterhouse, messily butchering hogs. While Arvin’s yet to make a career choice our boy’s pretty sure he doesn’t want “to kill pigs for a living.”
But one night necessity spurs Arvin to show a local adult his father’s secret altar. The fetid odor hits them first. Not knowing what to expect, Arvin’s companion steps back. “What the hell is that smell…?” Arvin points up. His guest aims a flashlight. And the torch alights Willard’s wooden crosses. Jolted by the dangling carcasses, teaming maggots, and the unholy bloody stench wafting from Willard’s prayer log, the bug-eyed yokel asks: “Goddamn it, boy, what the hell is this?”
“It’s a prayer log,” Arvin tells him.
“What? A prayer log?”
”But it don’t work,” forlorn Arvin wisely notes.
So as you may have guessed, Jason—
Arvin Eugene Russell doesn’t grow up to be a preacher. But one thing’s certain: beleaguered Arvin’s learned how to deliver a message. And he doesn’t need spiders either.
Willard’s a ticking time bomb … and when that bomb explodes, and the dust finally settles, ten-year-old Arvin finds himself separated from his parents—and living a new life in Coal Creek, West Virginia.
Goodbye hell-hole Knockemstiff!
Or so he thinks for now.
‘Cause remember, Jason, “They’s a lot of no-good sonofabitches out there.”
So Arvin is groomed into violence, for want of a better term. How does he view the violence as the years go by? Is it nihilistic and in service of self-preservation? Or does he view it from a moralistic, religious viewpoint, that all those ‘sonsofabitches’ need a lesson?
Arvin considers The Bull Pen beating Willard unleashes on Lucas “the best day he ever spent with his father.” As part of Willard’s legacy, Arvin also receives his father’s Luger pistol when he turns fifteen. And the youngster buoyantly thinks it’s “the best present he ever got.” He proves a natural with the pistol, shooting small game: that winds up on the supper table. His hunting partner Earskell naturally prefers a shotgun. And he’s surprised that Arvin can hit—let alone kill—moving critters with a handgun.
Arvin develops a “don’t fuck with me and mine—or else” philosophy. He doesn’t start shit. And he doesn’t go looking for trouble either. But like his father taught him: If someone starts shit? Arvin ain’t afraid to finish. It’s always a matter of the right “time and place.” While Arvin escapes Knockemstiff at age ten, people in rural Coal Creek are also afflicted by “misplaced” religious beliefs, isolation and ignorance—as well as abusers who prey on others, and the havoc their actions wreak.
Throughout his high school years, hell-bent Arvin doles out vengeance with his fists. And ẚ la Roy Laferty, he chooses on occasion to “spice up” his message. A bible-toting girl in Coal Creek is one of the few people Arvin cares about. And, more often than not, his intermittent violent acts involve avenging her. One day he stumbles upon three menacing boys telling this girl Lenora that they’d fuck her—but first they’d have to put a paper bag over her head. Arvin wastes no time—and let’s his fists do the talking. But three-on-one? He doesn’t stand a chance. Revenge takes two months. But he gets each boy alone then lays a beat-down on them— And as a finishing flourish, tugs a paper bag over each boy’s head.
No bones about it: The Devil All The Time often seethes with violence. But the violence isn’t graphic like Casino or Goodfellas. Pollock doesn’t bathe us in blood splatter or whack us with broken bones. He doesn’t glorify or sensationalize violence either. But indeed we feel the aftershocks. The criminal acts he portrays are the kind you hear about in the media all-too-often. And I find his criminal characters credible—especially if you remember the rural landscape, and the eras this tale unfolds in. The husband and wife serial killing duo are sickly ritualistic hunters. Run into a pair like this? A gun in your hands is sure as hell a godsend— provided you get the chance to use it. Arvin only uses the Luger when he feels he has no choice …. Tragically, however, Willard has successfully shaped his son in his own image. And while Arvin wonderfully gives a slew of devils their brimstone due, as a young man he discovers he’s now got hell to pay. The big question becomes: Can he survive this debt?
How does Lenora fit into Arvin’s life? Is she as vengeful as he? Does she just ride his wave, passive? Is it love?
I believe you’re hooked on Pollock’s story. If so, I’m glad. Hooking an audience is a large part of this presentation as is the temptation to continue talking. But my temptation advice comes from the Good Book–yield not!
If the discussion turns further toward Lenora and her connection to Arvin, we’ll venture into “big reveal” territory. I prefer not to do that. Don’t wanna be “that guy”.
Pollock’s book is definitely “stuff I wish I’d written”, but I also want to turn people on to the story. And like I did, let potential readers make some of their own discoveries.
All that remains is my praise for Pollock and his book that received an impressive international distribution, indicating a wide interest in rural Gothic Americana. Plus there’s “The Devil, The Movie” coming out in 2020! Sounds pretty cool.
Sounds mysterious. What part does the landscape play in the novel? Is it a character all on its own. Does it affect the characters?
Sounds mysterious, you say? Thrilled to hear you think so. Suggests my diabolic plot to tempt you with this book is working brilliantly, Jason.
Environments always affect us—and our way of thinking. Someone who spends their life in Montana and has never seen an ocean except on TV or at the movies won’t see life through the same lens as a lobsterman in coastal Maine. And if you’ve seen the movie The Horse Whisperer, someone from NYC who merely visits Montana can’t possibly comprehend the entire range of intricacies held by the local mindset: even though they see the landscape. My life here in England is naturally vastly different in many ways than my farming youth in rural Pennsylvania.
The key role landscape plays in The Devil, as mentioned earlier, involves “Isolation.” One can drive for miles and still be isolated. But as routine as daily life can often be, people can still stumble and bumble about … and sometimes bump “into things.”
Likewise, in an apparent twist of fate, I bumped into Pollock and The Devil unwittingly. A friend sent me an audio book … and attached an intriguing note: “Just listen.”
So, hell yeah, I listened—
Found myself surrounded by these backwoods crazies. It’s a trip you don’t wanna make while cruising country roads with your car windows down—or tucked in bed at midnight. Or at least I wouldn’t ….
Publisher Penguin books chose award-winning actor Mark Bramhall to dramatize The Devil. And Bramhall—who’s narrated some 400 audiobooks—spurs Knockemstiff to life: pegging the often slow curt speech … and grammar-shredded dialogue of Pollock’s Appalachian characters. Pollock’s books have been dubbed by some as Hillbilly Noir. And while Bramhall’s largely known for his theatrical performances, he’s also appeared in films, including the 2017 rural horror flick Anabelle: Creation—portraying the priest Father Massey. So he cunningly makes you feel how these characters live and think.
For anyone hoping to snatch a taste, I’ve included an audiobook sample below. But for all you TV-film fanatics, characters in the series Justified, set in moonshine-making rural Kentucky—talk in a fashion similar to Bramhall’s audio portrayal: including actor Timothy Olyphant. Billy Bob Thornton in the movie Sling Blade is another good example—though his accent’s more “drawn out.” Or check out Tom Hardy in the depression-era film, Lawless.
Meanwhile, nine mesmerizing hours and ten minutes later I found my spellbound self thinking: Damn. I wish I’d written this book. I grabbed a hard copy—that I’ve devoured four times since.
Call me possessed, Jason! And I’m not the only one. The Devil has been translated into at least a dozen languages including French and German.
Looks like the fun may not stop here either—
According to newsy sources, a movie based on the book is scheduled to release sometime in 2020. Sounds pretty cool. And yup, you can bet your soul I’m anxiously waiting to see the flick. But with Hollywood’s spotty adaptation record? I pray they don’t fuck this up.
Which leads me to think: Time I shut the fuck up. Talking The Devil All The Time—or to the Devil all the time—isn’t healthy or safe for anyone! But before I get the hell out of Dodge, Jason, thanks for letting me share my fire about this book. Pollock certainly gives the bad ol’ Devil his due.
Extended audio sample:
Jim, you’ve been great. What are you working on right now?
I’ve been working on a series of what I call “Frank Smith” stories. Two stories featuring this character were already published – “Desert Requiem” in the Hardboiled anthology from Dead Guns Press, and “All That the Case Is” in Blunder Woman Productions’ Wrong Turn anthology – my inspiration to keep these tales going. Frank’s a hard guy to pin down. He unofficially helps people out of tough situations. But he’s never exactly the same guy twice. The thread of each story dictates Frank’s persona, whether he’s an investigator, simply the muscle, or possibly even the victim. So each story suggests a peculiar adventure: Who will Frank Smith be this time? I aim to link these stories in a road-trip novella, kicking it off with a completed but unpublished Frank Smith story set in NYC, “A Drink in Purgatory”.
Thanks, Jim, for a thorough and passionate run-through of what sounds like a great book.
You can buy Jim’s work HERE.
Here are a few of Jim Shaffer’s classic short stories :
It’s Not the Pale Moon at The Flash Fiction Offensive
The Dressmaker’s Dummy at The Flash Fiction Offensive