Some People Are Born Just to Be Buried
Thoughts on THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME and its Netflix Adaptation
Knockemstiff is such an amazing name for a town, you’d have a hard time believing it’s authentic. But, residing in the area of Ross County, Ohio, with an estimated population of 56,753 people, it is very much a real town. Back in the 1950s, the population was only about 450, and—according to author Donald Ray Pollock—the majority of its residents were “connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another.”
With a name like that, of course, you’d have to imagine there’s some pretty interesting backstory involved, and you’d be right. There are many supposed “origin stories” of how Knockemstiff gained its glorious title, but my favorite one concerns an incident that happened over a century ago, wherein “a traveling preacher came across two women fighting over a man. The preacher said that he doubted the man was worth the trouble and that someone should ‘knock him stiff.’”
Religion and violence are essential themes found in any of Donald Ray Pollock’s writings, which as of this article consist of KNOCKEMSTIFF, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, and THE HEAVENLY TABLE. Considering Netflix just released a film adaptation of THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME book, that’s what we will be focusing on today. However, with that said, all three of Pollock’s books are spectacular, and I cannot recommend them enough. I truly hope this Netflix film has managed to significantly increase his readership.
His background as a writer is also pretty fascinating, and—dare I say it—inspiring.
On quitting his paper mill job at the age of forty-five with the intent of going to school and becoming a writer: “I’d always been a big reader, and I loved books, and I always thought writing would be a great way to get by in the world. The principle reasons for me, as far as being a writer, were: You were your own boss; you could do it anywhere; and you made lots of money. It wasn’t until I actually began writing that I found out that wasn’t really true.”
Pollock started off doing something I’ve heard lots of other writers talk about doing in their early beginnings: copying published short stories—word for word—of other already-established authors. With Pollock, he turned to folks like John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, and Denis Johnson. I’ve personally never tried this tactic but I can certainly understand how it could be helpful for someone just starting out. What better way to understand story structure and transitions than to, you know, rebuild from the same blueprint? And, over time, once confidence begins to build, you try emulating the style into your own ideas, which is what Pollock did, only to realize he was also trying to recycle the same types of characters those other authors often wrote about. People like nurses and lawyers. People Pollock didn’t know anything about. This lasted a little over two years, him trying to figure himself out as a writer, until he finally landed on what he’d call his sweet spot: writing about the kinda folks he’d known all his life, the blue-collar men and women of small towns like Knockemstiff and other surrounding areas.
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is his first novel, but second book (KNOCKEMSTIFF, a short story collection, was released three years before DEVIL). It’s a split POV narrative detailing the intersecting lives of a serial killer husband and wife couple, violent delusional preachers, a tormented veteran, and the veteran’s son, Arvin, who’s doing his best to survive in a world full of no-good sons of bitches (aren’t we all?). This book is bleak as fuck and totally unforgiving. It’s a crime book, yes, but it’s also deeply rooted in the horror genre (I dare you to disagree). In this novel the concept of religion acts as a disease infecting our characters, and our only choice is to sit back and watch as it spreads and rots them from the inside-out.
“The way she saw it, too much religion could be as bad as too little, maybe even worse; but moderation was just not in her husband’s nature.”
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is poetic and philosophical and—somehow, simultaneously—inspirationally minimalist. I’ve read it twice now just to confirm it’s the best book I’ve ever read in my life and goddamn, it just might be.
When I discovered Netflix was planning to release a film adaptation with folks like Bill Skarsgard and Robert Pattinson among the cast, I nearly ruined my pants with various bodily fluids. Pattinson has quickly become one of my favorite actors (see GOOD TIME and THE LIGHTHOUSE for a quick reason why), so for him to be involved in an adaptation of THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME? Holy crap. There was no way this could be bad.
And…it wasn’t bad! But also, maybe, it wasn’t as good as I’d anticipated. Although, in retrospect, the possibility that I spent too much time building it up in my head is worth keeping under consideration. Sometimes fans tend to do things like that—fantasize about the film THEY would make, rather than the one that was already made.
But, with that said…it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie with less confidence than THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. I think it’s very cool that Donald Ray Pollock served as the film’s narrator. I love it when films get the authors involved like that. I just wish a narrator was actually necessary and not detrimental to the story. Do you ever watch a movie and wonder what one of the characters might be thinking? Don’t worry, the constant narration will tell you! When I say “constant,” I am in no way exaggerating. Why take advantage of the visual medium when you can just rely on the audiobook format, I guess?
Look. The movie isn’t terrible. It’s definitely worth a watch. But goddamn. Narration bugs the shit out of me. Especially this heavy handed. It’s been over a month since I’ve seen this movie and I’m still grumpy about how dumb it assumed its audience would be.
The cast is great. It’s shot beautifully. Some of the adaptation decisions do seem unwise to me, though. Some storylines from the book could have easily been cut to allow more room for other more significant characters to breathe on the screen. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt so rushed and instead a little more lived in. As it currently stands, we lose so much about The Couple, what make them so important and enjoyable in the book is hardly present on screen due to how little time they’re allowed.
Maybe it would have better served as a miniseries. I don’t know. A lot of people I know loved the movie much more than I did and that’s great. I am almost definitely wrong here. I am happy an adaptation exists because I think more people will read the book, and that’s all that really matters, anyway, right? If the success of this movie brings forth more novels from the author, then hell yeah. I can’t wait.
Max Booth III is the Editor-in-Chief of Perpetual Motion Machine, the Managing Editor of Dark Moon Digest, and the host of two podcasts: Ghoulish and Castle Rock Radio. He’s the author of Touch the Night, Carnivorous Lunar Activities, and several other novels. Follow him on Twitter @GiveMeYourTeeth or visit him at www.TalesFromTheBooth.com. He lives in Texas.
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