"Corpsepaint" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Word Horde
Written by David Peak
2018, 240 pages, Fiction
Released on April 30th, 2018
I found the astonishingly bleak Corpsepaint, the latest release from David Peake, a totally riveting and lyrical read which had me glued to the page from beginning to end. I love literary, highly original horror novels, which are stacked with menace and nihilism. I also dig plots which have a strong musical theme throughout, and Corpsepaint is hard to beat in all these departments. All the main characters are protagonists in the black metal scene, an extreme sub-genre of heavy metal, and I did wonder how the book would read to those who had no knowledge of this obscure type of metal? Peake’s glimpse into this scene is a vivid portrayal of a sub-culture that many readers’ only point of reference might be the faint recollection of church burnings in the 1990s, which briefly made the news.
Interestingly, the author does not go into detail into what black metal is, or is not, and I suppose any interested reader could visit Wikipedia if they wanted to find out more and join the dots. Funnily enough, the main character of the novel, Max, does not necessarily come across as your typical ‘black metal’ musician and the author cleverly avoids the stereotypes and clichés of the sub-genre you’ll find mentioned on Wikipedia, such as white face paint makeup, the Corpsepaint of the title, which the musicians are known to wear.
Max is better known as ‘Strigoi’, famous in the black metal scene for recording three ground-breaking albums with his band Angelus Mortis much earlier in his career. The subsequent years have not been kind to him and he is now a washed-up drug addict, tired of hearing fans constantly harking back to these classic albums he despises. The novel opens with Max hooking up with Roland, a young but talented drummer who is accompanying him to the Ukraine to record his latest comeback album with famously reclusive cult act Wisdom of Silenus, who reside in a compound in the middle of a remote Ukrainian forest. The novel is about Max and Ronald’s journey across Europe and what happens to the men in the compound.
Another review I came across opened with, “…if you enjoy death metal…”; such a comment does not do this brutal and lyrical novel justice. Certainly, metal fans may get an extra layer of enjoyment out of Corpsepaint than a casual reader, but I would strongly recommend it to any fan of dark fiction. The author, sensibly, makes very few musical references and although the second half does have heavy supernatural content, he refuses to get involved any of the architype references points of heavy metal. Do not expect to read about the Devil, Satan, 666, Lucifer or anything else you might see on a Slayer or any other thrash band album cover, which I thought was a clever move. If anything, modern day cults may well be a better point of comparison than heavy metal music. I’ve been a metal fan for years and I did enjoy trying to identify the occasional nod to actual bands, but again, the author cleverly holds back on this.
The dynamics between the two main characters are outstanding, as we see the novel play out from both their points of view and crucially what they think of each other, which is very entertaining. Max the world-weary junkie musician and Roland the naïve youngster, who slowly realises what a mess his travelling companion is. Their journey, planes, trains, police, drink and drugs included, is a superb sequence, only adding to the tension as their Ukrainian destination gets closer.
To avoid spoilers, I’m not going to say much about what does on in the Ukrainian compound. It’s a vividly drawn and dismal location which both Americans hate, even though it has an impressive stage and recording space which Wisdom of Silenus rent out to bring in extra cash. Many other characters are introduced in this second half, including Seph, who welcomes the men, but has her own agenda. Many of the Ukrainian sequences are seen from her point of view as the cosmic-horror element of the story ramps up, but with exquisite pacing. Note also, and bizarrely, a few sequences are seen from the point of view of a baby goat!
The music sequences truly crackle, the addiction and drunken scenes, coupled with the descriptions of both the urban and countryside landscapes are all outstanding. I could have happily read of many more musical moments as the author takes us deep inside the heads of the protagonists and how their sound makes them tick. There is a terrific few pages, for example, with a doom metal band playing in the background, intertwined with Max’s withdrawals, I felt I was in the room with them.
I came very close to giving Corpsepaint the magic five stars, however, much of the build-up is leading to the introduction of the Ukrainian band Wisdom of Silenus into the plot, but they are ultimately somewhat of an anti-climax. I appreciate the story veers into a different direction and the band has their own agenda, but I never did get a sense of what they are like as musicians. We hear a lot about their reputation, but it stops there, so I think they are slightly unexplored. This is the smallest of quibbles in a novel which throbs in astonishing levels of darkness right until its brutal and shocking apocalyptic ending, which fits uncomfortably within the broken world of today. A truly outstanding novel.