No Sympathy for the Devil

Jon Foro on September 19, 2018

We-Sold.jpgIt's a fact that horror fiction and heavy metal music are not two genres that many, if not most, would label respectable. It is also a fact that—with the right kind of eyes and ears, and of course the right material—they can be the most fun. Grady Hendrix has the right kind of eyes and ears. His novel-disguised-as-a-catalog Horrorstör was a haunted house tale set in... IKEA. My Best Friend's Exorcism was a mutant hybrid of The Babysitter's Club and... The Exorcism. My favorite, Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction, is what must be the definitive-for-all-time survey of mass market horror. (More about that one here.)

His latest, We Sold Our Souls, honors the rich, pulpy heritage of eldritch fiction while mixing heavy metal theatrics into his brew of humor and horror. In a twist on the Robert Johnson/Ralph Maccio "crossroads" mythos, Hendrix's novel wonders what recourse is available when someone else sells your soul to the devil—a kind of spiritual identity theft. Sometimes the only answer is, of course, a white-hot, extended guitar solo.

In this exclusive piece, Hendrix morbidly ruminates on the longtime entanglement between horror (movies and fiction) and "the devil's music."

The link between heavy metal and horror was forged in steel back in 1968 when Geezer Butler glimpsed a movie marque playing Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and suggested that his band, Earth, change their name to something more horrific like, say, Black Sabbath? Ever since, heavy metal has been a non-stop avalanche of pentagrams, devil horns, corpse paint, muscular demons, and fake blood.

At first, bands were content to raid horror movies and deploy their shopworn effects for shock value. KISS took a little bit of horror, a little bit of hippie, and a dash of hardcore for their four iconic stage personas—The Starchild, The Spaceman, The Catman, and The Demon—while Alice Cooper combined Broadway showtunes with Vincent Price gothic for his baroque stage performances. Iron Maiden emblazoned their sci-fi/horror album covers with Eddie, their flayed corpse mascot who looked like the Cryptkeeper from a 1950’s EC horror comic.

This early imagery was all hooded figures, flying demons, virgin sacrifices, and ritual swords. It was fun, but it was also super-camp and very pulp. Any sense of real danger was secondhand. Then came 1985. That was the year the Satanic Panic erupted like a zit in the middle of American pop culture. The McMartin Preschool case was being tried, ABC’s 20/20 special, "The Devil Worshippers," hit the airwaves, and the Parental Music Resource Council—headed by Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s wife—participated in Senate hearings about objectionable song lyrics. The case against heavy metal was that it caused kids to kill themselves and take drugs. Under its influence, they would murder both neighborhood pets and their friends. Even the United States Senate was concerned!

The Foundling Kill Riff Night Music

Originally far more concerned about sexually explicit lyrics, the PMRC's "Filthy Fifteen" (their list of 15 songs considered too intense for radio) included Mercyful Fate’s "Into the Coven" and Venom’s "Possessed," both singled out for promoting the occult. Although, as Abaddon, the drummer for Venom, said in a later interview, "That just sounds lazy to me. That sounds like nobody’s listening to enough Venom to find the worst song."

The only actual thing the PMRC accomplished would be "Parental Advisory" stickers slapped on cassettes and CDs, but their greater impact was dragging heavy metal music into the cultural wars. Radio evangelists, concerned parents, busybody teachers, and journalists looking for muck to rake all began painting heavy metal as being torn straight from Satan’s songbook. So metal pushed back, decrying censorship and the moral majority, while wallowing in more and more excess as if the bands wanted to say, "You think our music is Satanic and violent and overly sexual? Wait until you get a load of this!"

Leading the charge was a vanguard of heavy metal horror movies like Trick or Treat (1986), The Gate (1987), Rock n’Roll Nightmare (1987), and Black Roses (1988). Weirdly enough, while their marketing campaigns relied entirely on their heavy metal cred, all of them wallowed in depictions of metal taken directly from Christian scare literature. In The Gate, a metal album played backwards opens a portal to Hell. The demonic, undead heavy metal musician in Trick or Treat turns on the teenager who idolizes him, kills his friends, and has to be dispatched into the netherworld—a scenario that feels like something Tipper Gore dreamed up after too much spicy sausages one night. And in Black Roses, the titular metal band are actual evil demons from Hell who can only be defeated by... the high school English teacher?

Shock Rock Stage Fright

Books leaned into the PMRC’s fantasies even harder. There’d been rock and roll horror before, like Frank Lauria’s The Foundling (1984), but it was David Schow’s ultra-gory Kill Riff that teamed up heavy metal with splatterpunk, the gory horror movement of the day, which valued nothing more than excessive descriptions of violence and depravity. Whip Hand, the band at the center of the novel, are depicted as truly vile and are barely better than the sociopath who’s out to murder them one by one for the death of his daughter at one of their concerts.

The Scream (1988) features an evil metal band that’s not only fighting M.O.M. (Morality Over Music) but also summoning a 30-foot-tall, pregnant, hermaphroditic living-dead zombie that wants to destroy the universe, and can only be defeated by the judicious application of rocket launchers. And Stage Fright (1988) features a drug-addicted, insane superstar who uses a telepathic computer system to project his murderous heavy metal fantasies onto the innocent minds of entire stadiums full of fans. Unfortunately, no one cared enough about books to try to ban any of them, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Heavy metal horror didn’t outlive the late Eighties. Books like Shock Rock and Night Music withered on the vine because they came out in 1992, and by then the world had moved on. In 1991, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became the song that no one could escape, and grunge hit heavy metal over the back of the head with a shovel and cannibalized its corpse. What Tipper Gore and the PMRC couldn’t do, Kurt Cobain did.

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