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Literature / The Devil All the Time

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"What I'm about to do, I do because I have to. Not because I want to."
"Now, if you asked most people where Knockemstiff, Ohio, or Coal Creek, West Virginia were, they probably couldn’t point them out to you on a map. But I guarantee, they’d be there all the same. How and why so many people from those two piddling places on that map could end up connected has a lot to do with our story. Some would claim it was just dumb luck, while others might swear it was God’s intention. But I’d say with the way things turned out, it was a little bit of both."
The Narrator

Donald Ray Pollock's 2011 novel set in the 1950s and 1960s Midwest. Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, The Devil All the Time follows a cast of compelling and bizarre characters from the end of World War II to the 1960s. There’s Willard Russell, tormented veteran of the carnage in the South Pacific, who can’t save his beautiful wife, Charlotte, from an agonizing death by cancer no matter how much sacrifi­cial blood he pours on his “prayer log.” There’s Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband-and-wife team of serial kill­ers, who troll America’s highways searching for suitable models to photograph and exterminate. There’s the spider-handling preacher Roy and his crippled virtuoso-guitar-playing sidekick, Theodore, running from the law. And caught in the middle of all this is Arvin Eugene Russell, Willard and Charlotte’s orphaned son, who grows up to be a good but also violent man in his own right.


A film adaptation was released on Netflix on 16th September 2020. It stars Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Mia Wasikowska, Eliza Scanlen, Sebastian Stan and Robert Pattinson.

The Devil All the Time contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Willard after he sacrifices Arvin's dog to God to save his wife from cancer.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Preston Teagardin in the book is overweight and not particularly attractive, a far cry from Robert Pattinson in the film. Sandy also qualifies, to a lesser extent- in the book, her teeth are rotting by the end of the book. Helen and Lenora are also said to be "horse-faced".
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: In the book, Theodore manipulates Roy into killing Helen, while Roy does so on his own in the film.
  • Advertised Extra: Mia Wasikowska is only in the film for five minutes or so.
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  • All There in the Manual: The book explains how Carl and Sandy started killing hitchhikers in the first place.
  • Anyone Can Die Characters are killed left and right in this movie and by the end of the film the only primary characters still alive are Arvin, his grandmother, and uncle.
  • Asshole Victim: Arvin kills in order: A scumbag "Preacher" who drove his sister to suicide, a sadistic serial killer, his willing accomplice and a corrupt cop who's been working for the mob for years. It's pretty clear we're not meant to sympathize with them.
  • Ax-Crazy: There are several characters who are violently insane.
    • Carl is a deeply depraved and sadistic murderer who gets off on raping and torturing his victims before they die.
    • Roy is an unstable religious fanatic who pours spiders on himself to prove his faith in God and later kills his wife because he believes that he can bring her back to life.
    • Downplayed with Willard, who's become significantly more violent and short tempered after the war but not exactly insane. Though he later crucifies Arvin's dog (in the film; in the book he also kills several other animals and one person) because he believes it will save his wife.
    • Sheriff Bodecker descends into madness near the end of the film, randomly firing his shotgun and screaming out loud, desperate to kill Arvin.
  • Big Brother Instinct:
    • Arvin is extremely protective of Lenora, tracking down and beating up a group of teens who bullied her. Later on, when he deduces that Teagardin is responsible for her suicide, he kills him in revenge.
    • Downplayed with Sheriff Lee Bodecker. While he does care for his sister, much of his actions he does for her are done to cover his own ass for re-election. That said, he is saddened by her death and tries to avenge her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Arvin kills Preston, Carl, Sandy, and Lee, but he's very much left miserable at the end and runs off to Cincinnati.
  • Boom, Headshot! Carl kills Roy this way.
    • Arvin finally kills Reverend Preston after shooting him in the head.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Luger pistol that Willard own and is given to his son Arvin in the early section of the movie is used when Arvin kills Reverend Preston, Carl, Sandy and Lee at the end of the film.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Most of Roy and Theodore’s storyline is cut out from the film.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The fact that both Roy and Arvin would happen to run into the same pair of serial killers after going on the run from killing someone in West Virginia, almost 7 years apart. Or that one of those serial killers would happen to be the sister of the cop who dealt with Arvin after his father's suicide. This is lampshaded in the quote above.
  • Cool Gun: Willard's souvenir gun from his time in the war, a P08 Luger in 9mm, to his father. After Willard's suicide, Arvin's grandfather gifts him the pistol to remember his father. The distinctive nature of the Luger and the rarity of 9mm ammunition amongst civilians at the time is what helps Sheriff Lee Bodecker pinpoint who killed Preston Teagardin, his sister Sandy, and her husband.
  • Corrupt Hick: Sheriff Lee Bodecker not only strives to cover up his sister's activities to boost his re-election chances, he's long been in the pay of organized crime to look the other way on their enterprises. Bodecker goes even further to destroy any evidence that his sister is an accomplice to a set of serial killings and also kills his criminal employers.
  • Crapsack World: Carl and Sandy are murderers, Willard is a religious fanatic, his wife Charlotte is dying; everywhere we see deprived, poor, and murderous people. At one point Cincinnati comes to represent the possibility of a better place, but we don't get to find out if it really is any better.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The film follows Willard for the first 40 minutes or so and then he kills himself out of grief after his wife dies. Arvin then becomes the film's true protagonist afterwards.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Both Willard and Arvin fought "the Devil all the time" considering their penchant for violence and the need to fight someone.
  • Driven to Suicide: Willard and later Lenora both commit suicide. Well, technically Lenora doesn't — she changed her mind at the last minute, but unfortunately ended up dying anyway.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Preacher Teagardin's first act in the film is to deliver a not-so-subtle Stealth Insult to Arvin's grandmother. He's a gigantic, holier-than-thou asshole.
  • Evil Is Petty: The first sign we get that Preacher Teagardin is a villain is when he refuses to eat, and then publicly insults, Emma's fried chicken liver dish in front of the entire congregation.
  • Face Death with Dignity: After killing his wife, Roy accepts his upcoming fate at the hands of Carl and Sandy.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Carl lures his hitchhiking victims into his car by acting friendly and helpful. Preacher Teagardin masks his sexual depravity behind a thin veil of folksy politeness and righteousness though it doesn't really work and he comes off as more a condescending Jerkass than anything else.
  • For the Evulz: Carl enjoys killing people and taking photos of his crimes.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: Sandy seriously considers killing Carl and taking off with Arvin near the end. Arvin kills Carl and her before she can do anything about it.
  • It Gets Easier: Carl looks mildly uncomfortable while killing his second victim, who is calmly accepting his death. By his 14th victim, he's totally fine with brutally torturing his victim by shooting his balls off and ignores his begging and pleading while taking pictures. Inverted with Sandy, who is disgusted and horrified near the end and looks away.
  • Kick the Dog: A almost literal example, Willard kills Arvins dog in a desperate attempt to save his wifes life by offering God a sacrifice
    • Reverend Preston Teagardin character has many of these moments such as him insulting Arvins grandmothers food and blaming Leonora for the pregnency.
  • Legacy Character: Arvin is Willard and Charlotte's son. As well as Lenora, daughter of Helen and Roy. It's even mentioned that both kids inherit traits from one of their parents.
  • Lighter and Softer: The film tones down much of the violence. In the book, for example, Willard kills several animals and one person as sacrifices to God to save his wife. By the end, the entire area is soaked with blood. In the film, he ‘just’ kills the dog.
  • Mercy Kill: During the war, Willard comes across a soldier that had been skinned alive and crucified. Willard puts him out of his misery.
  • Morality Chain: Lenora is this to Arvin. While he doesn't exactly turn evil, he murders Preacher Teagardin shortly after and ends up killing three more people in self-defence.
  • Never My Fault: During Arvins confrontation with him, Reverend Preston Teagardin refuses to admit any involment or blame for what happen to Leonora.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Arvin delivers a brutal one to each of the three guys who bullied Leonora.
  • Pedophile Priest: Reverend Preston Teagardin is a hebephile who ends up seducing 15-year-old Lenora.
  • Precision F-Strike: The Narrator sometimes uses vulgarly in his narration. He calls Carl a "sick fuck" and uses other fucks in his narration.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: Willard kills his son's dog as a sacrifice to God as a desperate means to save his wife (who is dying of cancer) life. It doesn't work.
    • Roy Laferty kills Helen under the assumption that he can bring her back. This of course does not happen.
  • Sinister Minister: Both Coal Creek church Reverends:
    • Roy Laferty murders his wife Helen in a fit of madness.
    • Preston Teagardin is a preacher as well as a sexual predator.
  • Stealth Insult: Preacher Teagardin stands before the church congregation and delivers a short sermon, saying that whoever brought the dish of chicken livers "in the cracked platter" to the potluck is obviously too poor to afford better fare, so he'll eat the dish as a Christian sacrifice. The Russell family can only silently seethe at the not-so-subtle insult.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Don't you hate it when your mother gets cancer and your violent father kills your dog and skins it and crucifies it above his "prayer log" as a sacrifice and it doesn't work and your mother dies and your father cuts his own throat directly under the corpse of your dog and your adopted sister gets Driven to Suicide by a corrupt preacher so you snap and kill the preacher and flee town but then your car breaks down and you hitch a ride with a nice couple of Serial Killers whom you only barely escape from with your life and finally you return to your burned-down childhood home to bury the remains of your dog and then out of nowhere a corrupt shotgun-wielding sheriff turns up to murder you? And that's only in the film. The book is worse.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In the film, Theodore is not seen again after Roy abandons him in the car to join the Hendersons. In the book, he had already died.

"But he was good at fighting. Maybe that's where he belonged."

Alternative Title(s): The Devil All The Time