Read This! Volume 6
New Horror Fiction You Should Know
I grew up with an eclectic mix of music choices, thanks to a dad with a classic teakwood stereo console that included a reel-to-reel recorder, turntable, FM radio receiver, and room for his extensive LP collection. When he was away on Air Force missions, navigating his crew’s C-130 cargo transport plane to assorted destinations, I would wait for my mom and sisters to leave on some errand that excluded me so I could slip select LP records from their paper and plastic inner sleeves. After I wiped them clean of dust with his microfiber dust brush, I held them only by the edges, so as not to mar the perfect spiral of grooves with any body oil that might damage them, and played his music—undetected, until I confessed to him last year.
What I recall of my father’s collection was listening to Ravi Shankar on sitar, Sgt. Pepper’s multilayered experiments, and jazz from Weather Report, Dave Brubeck, George Benson . . . there was much more, and it all laid the foundation for my tastes in music. By the 80s I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and hung out in the East Village. Rock and Roll was colliding with art world sensibilities that spoke to me. In Queens, the radio station I listened to, WNEW-FM, had pushed me towards hard Rock. The commercial black stations played paeans to adolescent heterosexuality, pop friendly songs of love rising or falling; layered with boy-girl passions of no interest to a closeted gay teenager, except for songs of heartbreak. Rock had its own share of all that, but there were also bands that explored rebellion, protest and alienation, all of which I was feeling then.
I bought fifteen-dollar baggy black suits from Cheap Jacks on St. Marks Place and danced at downtown clubs and bars in Patti Smith drag, with buttoned down collared white shirts and ties, like the dissolute ex-Catholic schoolboy I was. I had been born with David Bowie, whose Ziggy Stardust had first opened the door to a wider world to me, and grew up on bands like Blondie, Talking Heads, the Patti Smith Group, devoured work by my new literary loves William Burroughs (an obsession shared by the bands I loved) and Ishmael Reed, old and new science fiction, and horror in print and on screen by David Cronenberg, Toby Hooper, and John Carpenter, until I had to write or die. I felt part of an explosion of creative energy that was redefining the world, though it took decades for me to discipline myself enough to finish any of my stories, much less to write well enough for publication.
Rock remained the background to most of my work, moving to a decade of techno in the 90s, then widening to world music, a late discovery of Funk with classic George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and so much more since. The range of what can be called Rock, if not purely Rock & Roll (though the recent reboot of Twin Peaks brought us bands whose sound harkens back to a more bluesy era), is broad and provides me with a wide emotional landscape to write in. It’s natural I would also follow, even casually, the lives of those who make it, in life and fiction.
There are many movie and television treatments of the rock life, and more than a few novels. While most Rap stories seem to start with the scars and focus on the rise, ending in either triumphant success and vindication, or glorious martyrdom to the streets that made them, rock stories push past the allure of achieved stardom, peeling away layers of wealth and sex to remind us of the scars beneath, wounds the lavish lifestyle is there to cover, bury deep.
Of course, plenty have died of old age in Rock, and Rap is slowly getting there. Snoop Dogg has rolled into a second act as a game show host and co-host to a dinner party series with Martha Stewart. Ice Cube, once known for raising controversy in NWA with Fuck Tha Police, and showing the softer side of ghetto life in his Fridays movies, has now starred in three Ride Along comedies with Kevin Hart, playing a cop, with no sign of stopping. Retirement from Rap for big stars has been easier than that of lesser rappers like DMX and many others less known outside of Hip-Hop, languishing in jail for living a little too real.
As Rap’s gangster days seem to recede, Rock burnout stories seem to continue. They are often more mysterious, not quite as clean as being shot by rivals or law enforcement, or explainable overdose. Rock retirement can still surprise us with the degree of damage done to people and lives, and that, my friends, lays more groundwork for horror.
Lethe Press, May 15, 2018, 280 pages
Distortion opens with four Oxford Dictionary definitions of the word. All become relevant by the book’s end, and one is a clue to the horror the hero really faces. I’ll leave it to you to determine which one it is.
Mick Harris had survived a decades-long career in Heavy Metal Rock until splashy big hair bands like his, Palace, were displaced by the birth of Grunge Rock, while more seriously musical bands like Metallica rolled right through it. That’s more than his lead singer Ricky Blaine can say, dead of an overdose after a long slow descent into rage and delusion over his lost fame. Front man for a band that couldn’t stay current, he had none of the talent for writing or producing music Mick that had. Stripped of his stardom and the live adulation of fans and their endless supply of sex, he was left with nothing but a growing obsession with getting the band back on the road. For Mick, that would be reviving the dead. He saved and wisely invested his money and lives comfortably, well out of the limelight, flipping renovated houses with a canny business partner who’s kept them successful.
Haunted by the guilty memory of Ricky’s gruesome end, Mick has still made a reasonable life for himself. He came out as gay towards the end of the band’s career and survived it relatively intact. He’s had to admit that his inability to sustain a relationship has more to do with his nature than his sexuality. It wasn’t that he couldn’t commit to a woman all those years he was in the closet . . . after his most recent involvement with a man ended because his partner felt pushed away, he knows it’s just him. As he questions his ability to love wholly or commit, he receives a call from a stranger telling him that a daughter he fathered seventeen years ago needs his help. Her mother has killed herself, and the girl is now the ward of a guardian who has less than her best interests at heart.
It’s a good point in Mick’s life for a personal odyssey, so he lets his business partner know he’s taking time off as he hits the road to a small town he doesn’t know, to meet a girl he’s never met. The story’s told in first person, from Mick’s point of view, so we’re inside his head as he processes what’s to come. When he arrives, he meets the usual assortment of locals one finds in stories like this, but none quite what you would expect. The small town sheriff is reasonable and open-minded, aware of Mick’s residual fame and respectful of his newly found daughter as he fills him in on events before and since her mother’s death. The landlady of the holiday cabin Mick rents is predictably terse, but his neighbors in the next cabin are an unorthodox male couple introduced by the sounds of sex as he passes. Both married to women, they’ve been carrying on a thirty-year long Same Time Next Year/Brokeback Mountain style affair with each other, conducted in annual two week “fishing trips.”
Isley, Mick’s estranged daughter, instantly greets him with anger and resentment, as she only heard of his existence shortly before her mother’s death. As she blames him for her abandonment, he tries to explain her mother sent him away the one day he tried to meet her, and she never cashed checks or accepted aid. Isley rushes away and Mick does the best he can to help her, getting bills to pay from the mother’s friend who called him. The girl’s had a double loss . . . her boyfriend, a popular well-to-do local, died mysteriously of a heart attack just before her mother, and the town somehow blames the girl for both. Mick joins her the next day to paint over the red word “witch!” painted on her door, and begins to mend communications between them, until other events intrude.
Mick finds a rune-like slip of paper, a name written on it in what looks like blood. After he and one of the men next door read the name aloud, there are weird assaults on his cabin, windows smashed, more heart attacks, and an eyeless stranger of great strength, all of which echo local lore he’s been told. It all drives Mick to the local library with Isley to look up more about the town’s past, to find out why evil events then are reaching out to affect them now.
What follows is a slow boiling mystery that rapidly increases the stakes for Mick and Isley to resolve their relationship faster, as her guardian’s charity for homeless girls may be a front for a sadistic sexual abuser with a taste for young flesh. She spends her nights locked in the bathroom, sleeping in the tub, while Mick uncovers a horrific history leading them to an even darker present as events build to a supernatural showdown. I enjoyed it greatly, and am usually hard on stories that take haunted protagonists into their dark past to confront their demons tropes . . . partly because Mick is doing just fine when we meet him, not at all the cliché broken man who the story is going to fix . . . and because the writing has a smooth natural flow that only occasionally near the end dips into the coy, Stephen Kingian, “if only I’d known what was to come” foreshadowing and misdirection I’ve been guilty of myself.
I also liked that being gay was just part of what Mick is, and only affected the story as much as other aspects of his life and character did; the horrific events aren’t some metaphoric judgment on him. We also see a different view of how men who love men often have to relate to each other outside of areas of liberal acceptance, in Mick’s cabin neighbors, and a possible local romance with a recently divorced black window installer.
I’ll admit that I’ve had minor issues about mainstreaming the rebellion out of rock and being gay. Being on the edge once thrilled me. Secretly listening to my father’s record collection almost made it sweeter than if he’d openly shared his music with me. Acceptance of rock and gay life has made both increasingly ordinary, the one thing we tried most to avoid when our mantra was The Pet Shop Boys revival of the Zelda Fitzgerald quote, “We were never bored because we were never boring.”
Distortion reminded me that there comes a time in life when perhaps we can appreciate inertia for what it can be, a sustained state of rest. After a life of strife to get here, perhaps I’ve earned it.
We Sold Our Souls
Quirk Books, September 18, 2018, 336 pages
When we first meet Kris Pulaski she’s an angry teenager in a garage with a guitar, finding her voice in the pain she feels learning to play chords that later set her free with a successful music career in Heavy Metal . . . thirty-three years later, she’s forty-seven, with a crappy day job at a motel front desk, watching a naked customer with a bag over his head piss all over her lobby and pretty much her life. She’s back in the town she grew up in, living in her dead mom’s house that a younger brother’s selling in a month. Her band Dürt Würk also succumbed to Grunge, and while she’s more broke than broken, Kris is on the edge of the bowl about to spiral downwards. Just when her future seems as bleak as it could possibly be, on her drive home she sees billboards for KOFFIN – BACK FROM THE DEAD . . . FINAL FIVE CONCERTS . . .
She had founded the band Dürt Würk with Terry Hunt, who’s now displayed on KOFFIN’s enormous ads made up as The Blind King, a nightmarish character she’d created in songs for their unreleased first album, Troglodyte. It was a concept album that told the epic journey of a hero battling the immortal evil rulers of Black Iron Mountain, rising into the light by the end in a song Terry insisted they cut. The recording was shelved and later lost after they got a contract, dismissed as rough early work by their new manager, and they moved on to bigger hits.
KOFFIN was born one fateful night at the height of their career when Terry had forced her hand, tried to get them all to abandon the first band and sign with a new one he owned, all rights to their old music obliterated. Isolated in an old building deep in the woods where they had recorded their last record, a ramshackle structure called The Witch House, Kris had protested, run into the night and returned later to—what? All she could recall was that everything changed that night, and a panicked van accident she caused getting them all out of there and away from Terry ended the band, her career, and bank account.
The quest to find out why and what really happened that night sends Kris on a road trip in her dad’s rundown nineteen-year-old white Grand Marquis with maroon interior to track down the old members of her band. She rebuilds their lost first record in her head as she hits the road, recovers a maelstrom of memories and quickly unlocks the mystery of what happened that night to make them all lose hours of time and so very, very much more. As she does, Kris uncovers a deeper, darker evil than bad music management. In the contracts signed that night, the Devil was indeed in the details, and the unread fine print sold off their souls to benefit Terry and his evil masters.
KOFFIN’s final farewell tour means to raise the stakes.
The Blind King will deliver his legions of fans to the demons of Black Iron Mountain as they sign up for phones with free data plans and other products, clicking yes without reading the terms and conditions that sell off their souls. Terry’s handlers, eager to use any means to get Kris out of the way until they’ve done their dirty deed, pursue her. What could easily be a plodding or pedestrian plot becomes a rampaging romp that rapidly gets bloody and satiric by turns. There’s both dark humor and a perverse practicality in having murderous hitmen disguised as UPS men, abducting people in their anonymous brown trucks, as they dutifully report their bloody crime scenes to the police. It makes them as invisible as Kris becomes when, late in the story, she swaps clothes with a maid to get backstage.
We also meet Melanie, a young KOFFIN fan on her way to the last concert who learns the hard way why not to meet guys from online IRL. She’s as frustrated with her dead end life as Kris was with hers in the garage with her guitar, and she’s an effective modern echo of what Kris once was, the pattern persisting to present day. Their meeting is both inevitable and enjoyable.
The action rushes from the urine-soaked motel lobby, to a renovated Witch House that’s now a luxurious but deadly meditation center, to KOFFIN’s climactic last stage performance at Hellstock 2019 . . . Transcripts of radio shows skitter between chapters like stations crackling in and out of range, with bursts of increasingly sinister events lying ahead. The relentless pace reminded me of vintage Cronenberg flicks I love like The Brood and Scanners, told with the same subtle intelligence and quiet wit that never turns tongue in cheek. Horror and humor play off each other in a delicate dance, as illustrated in the book’s title, both amusing and chilling for a Rock novel. We Sold Our Souls has the light touches of release a nervous laugh can provide, but takes its dangers seriously—which is why it works.
It’s not a spoiler to say the novel slowly turns into a Heavy Metal-styled fantasy that, by the end, literally plays out Dürt Würk’s lost first album onstage in a duel with the demonic forces of Black Iron Mountain, thousands of souls and the fate of the world at stake. By then we’ve already walked through it song-by-song, with lyrics, while Kris used it to reconstruct her memory of the fateful night she lost it all.
The climax is a truly metal moment. I won’t tell you how it goes for Kris or Melanie, but by the end of the novel, we’ve experienced the redemptive powers of music as much as its perilous pitfalls.
And that’s as Rock and Roll and it gets.
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