"We Sold Our Souls" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Quirk Books
Written by Grady Hendrix
2018, 336 pages, Fiction
Released on September 18th, 2018
Grady Hendrix is fast turning into one of the trendiest names in horror and his affectionate account of a washed-up heavy metal guitarist fighting internal demons (and some real ones) in We Sold Our Souls will ensure his star continues to rise. If you’re a heavy metal fan, this novel is a dream come true, with the author name-checking countless bands and throwing in a multitude of musical pop-culture references for good measure. As a life-long heavy metal fan, I had fun counting the number of bands mentioned I had either seen in concert, enjoyed listening to, or had CDs lurking in my collection. For the music lover, it really is that entertaining. At certain points you might even forget you were reading a horror novel.
I’ll be interested to see how We Sold Our Souls goes down with non-heavy metal or knowledgeable music fans. Although there is still much to enjoy, I have a feeling they will not find it quite as pleasurable. As horror novels go, it is both light and undemanding, and without picking up on the knowing musical nods, it could fall flat a few readers. But I certainly hope not. For instance, every chapter is named after a famous metal song or album, a non-metal is not going to appreciate these metal points of reference.
I recently reviewed David Peake’s bleak nihilistic masterpiece Corpsepaint about a washed-up, drug addicted, black metal singer. I mention this now because these two books have a strong heavy metal connection, however, that is where the similarities end. Hendrix goes for nostalgia, familiarity and indulgently taps into the fun clichés surrounding metal, whereas Peake does the opposite and refuses to play with the devil-horn stereotypes. Hendrix ultimately sees hope in the love of music and Peake’s Corpsepaint only darkness and despair. If you have never heard of David Peake’s journey into the Ukraine to make a black metal album, look it up. You’ve not going to smile knowingly like when you read We Sold Our Souls, but I guarantee you will never forget it. In a weird way the novels complement each other, as well as contrast, so read them both.
Selling your soul to the devil for success in the music business is a story as old as his hills, going back to Robert Johnson and his 'Crossroad Blues' or even further in time with the original classical Faustian German legend. This is Grady Hendrix’s riff on that famous story, which begins in the basement of teenager Kris Pulaski, who is teaching herself to play guitar by listening to Black Sabbath tunes. An older kid she vaguely knows from school, Terry Hunt, sticks his head in her window, and the two form a band called Dürt Würk, which goes on to have limited success. They break up on the eve of releasing a new album ‘Troglodyte’, which Kris believes is going to be really successful. However, the master tapes of this album mysteriously disappear and in musical circles this record becomes an urban musical legend, mainly because nobody has heard it.
The story is mainly told in the present day with Kris Pulaski now in her mid-forties and working as a washed-up hotel receptionist. In the two decades since Dürt Würk split up, Terry Hunt subsequently became the biggest musical star in the world with his band ‘Koffin’, which was formed out of the ashes of Dürt Würk, but without Kris. Continuing to gig with other bands but with limited success, Kris never really got out of the shadow of being in the same first band as the legendary Terry Hunt. We Sold Our Souls begins with Koffin announcing a series of farewell shows in Las Vegas, which Kris decides to travel to and confront him about the demons from their past.
Note that this is a heavy metal geek talking, so feel free to disagree; when the plot takes a supernatural Lovecraftian turn, I struggled to take it seriously partly because it has a 1970s Led Zeppelin or progressive rock feel to it. If you’re familiar with Zeppelin, perhaps something from 'Houses of the Holy' or the mystical live album, 'The Song Remains the Same'. The band Dürt Würk were from the 1990s; one of the reasons they failed to find success was because they were sandwiched between grunge in the early 1990s and nu-metal later in the decade and their sound perhaps did not fit with the times. Were they a ‘70s sounding rock band existing in the ‘90s? I couldn’t quite put my finger on what they were, perhaps in the same ballpark as the Nine Inch Nails or other industrial bands is my best guess.
We Sold Our Souls has a really terrific ending, and if you’re a metal fan in particular, some of the music scenes in the closing sequences may well send shivers down your spine and you’ll be digging out your air guitar. However, again with my heavy metal geek hat on again, I did wonder how many young women, which happens in the novel, would be standing watching extreme acts such as Cannibal Corpse or Wolves in the Throne Room, who are as far as the mainstream as one can get! There were also some really funny scenes; one featured Terry Hunt excitedly thinking he had discovered a new killer riff for a song, only to realise he had heard it before on an Iron Maiden album from thirty years ago.
There is much to smile at in this fun novel, and I’m not sure I’ve come across any with so many musical references. Even the mighty thrash legend Slayer makes a cheeky appearance; not long before Dürt Würk split up, they were kicked off their tour for badmouthing the headline band and trashing their hotel, another great metal cliché. Kris is a feisty rock-chick lead character who really loves her music and there are plenty of enjoyable larger-than-life support characters thrown into the mix. The supernatural element is not introduced, or revealed, until quite late in the novel and this strategy works very well.
We Sold Our Souls will have you cranking up your favourite metal album to 10 in no time at all. If you were ever in a band, you’ll be cheering for Kris all the way, and if being in a band never got beyond being a pipe-dream or playing air guitar in front of your bedroom mirror, you’ll still be cheering for her. Seriously rock and roll.