Rock music has its own mythology. Whether it’s the true-crime theatrics of the European black metal scene, the wild lives and untimely deaths of generations’ worth of rock legends, or even the way an innovative artist can launch a whole new genre scene, rock is full of stories that start out strange and only get stranger. It only makes sense that fantasy and horror books that treat in the mythology of rock mythologies get stranger, too. There’s a eclectic mix of weird fiction about music out there, and this setlist of 9 books will get you started.
Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You, by Scotto Moore
It begins with an odd Bandcamp page that sends the narrator spiraling out of control, compulsively listening and relistening to a song called “Overture” by an unheralded band known as Beautiful Remorse. Contacted by the band, the blogger is chosen to be their “herald,” helping them to release one new track every day for 10 days. In a compact 100 pages, Moore charts the blogger’s attempts to figure out just who is behind the mysterious musical project, research that quickly ramps up from “curiousity” to “fanaticism” as each track seems to elicit stronger and stronger reactions from listeners—trancelike states, violent outbursts, self-harm, the opening of portals to a hell dimension, the usual. It’s been said that writing about sound in a soundless medium is difficult (one famous comedian likened it to “dancing about architecture”), but by focusing on the effects—both psychological and physical—of Beautiful Remorse’s strange music, Moore reproduces it almost clearly enough to hear. Everyone knows the joy of discovering a new favorite song and feeling the entire world open up just a little bit across those three to five glorious minutes. Just substitute joy with “dawning horror” and that’s this novella in a liner note.
We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
Hendrix’s (Horrorstor, My Best Friend’s Exorcism) third horror novel begins with its main character, Kris, pushing herself as she works out the chords to “Iron Man,” then lurches forward in time to the aftermath of her dreams of rock and roll stardom, post the breakup of her Dürt Wurk, which ended with her friend Terry’s betrayal by way of a literal deal with the devil. Hendrix intercuts each chapter with quotes from interviews and radio broadcasts that weave the history of the fictional band into the greater cultural framework of music history. Hendrix’s story of revenge, dark powers, and heavy metal is grounded in the music, from the way the former Dürt Würk members communicate using song lyrics, to Kris’s reawakening as she pushes herself to play a Slayer song before embarking on her quest, to even the importance the plot places on a concept album Kris and her friends recorded. We Sold Our Souls is a twisted, compulsively readable horror novel about the transcendent powers of rock—both light and dark.
Welcome To The Show, compiled by Matt Hayward and Doug Murano
The Shantyman is a historic venue in San Francisco, a place that’s played host to the best and worst of humanity as well as some of the best and worst moments in rock history. In the hands of Matt Hayward and his talented collaborators, these includes a revenge curse from press-ganged victims of cannibalism, a psychedelic rock show that results in occult experiences, cursed soundtracks, literally satanic rock ‘n’ roll, human sacrifices, and all the other dangers of rock music those parental groups warned you about. Together, these stories use the music and the culture that grows up around it to create the soul of the Shantyman, a dark, twisted thing that shines through every tale; the place might change from act to act, but remains ever itself, inviting fans to enter and find ruin within, even as it tantalizes them with bright lights and awesome tunes. Standout Stories: “A Tongue Like Fire” by Rachel Autumn Deering, “In the Winter of No Love” by John Skipp
The Unnoticeables, by Robert Brockway
While Brockway’s novel splits its time between the gritty streets of 1977 New York and the parties and mansions of modern-day Los Angeles, a lot of the flavor and energy comes from ’70s-era clashes between Carey and his punk friends and a variety of terrifying monsters straight out of cosmic horror. Brockway works the era, music, and gritty feel into the book’s narrative—the heroes at first attribute the weird disappearances of their friends to the tune-in, drop-out culture of the time. Later, horrors unfold in a crowded rock club, and Carey beats up monsters with a mic stand. While the LA sections have their own distinct feel, it’s equally interesting to see Carey decades later, as a faded relic of that gritty era, a broke and broken remnant of a hard-rock past unsuccessfully trying to exist in the present, fighting the same evil alongside a new generation. Altogether, it amounts to a novel as propulsive, edgy, and hard-rocking as the music and culture at its heart.
The Five, by Robert McCammon
On what appears to be their last tour, a rock band named The Five are slowly making their way through the Southwest with their manager when a deranged military veteran begins picking them off one by one, seemingly due to a comment the band made about the Iraq War. Once the killing begins, the FBI takes an interest, using the gigs as an excuse to draw the sniper out while possibly putting the band at risk. The media swoops in after the sniper takes out one of The Five, complicating matters further—but lurking beneath everything is a thread of the supernatural, suggesting that The Five share a grand destiny, and that there are powerful forces out there willing to corrupt and murder too keep them from fulfilling it. While McCammon builds tension from the word “go,” what’s just as interesting as the cat-and-mouse theatrics of the plot is the way he packs in so much odd detail about the life of a road musician—from the way the characters live out of their tour bus to the inspiration for new songs they find along the way.
Little Heroes, by Norman Spinrad
Glorianna O’Toole, a burnt-out former hippie known as “The Crazy Old Lady of Rock’n’Roll” is hired (okay, more like blackmailed) by Muzik Inc. to make them a new rock star with more of the old spirit and edge. With the aid of two young computer programmers and a weird hallucinogenic technology, Glorianna creates the perfect rock star to boost the fortunes of Muzik, Inc.—but as their new singer is adopted by an underground movement and personal tensions flare between the programmers, a war breaks out between artificial rockstars and corporations over the fate of reality itself. It’s a cyberpunk epic about the power and anti-authoritarian nature of rock, with Spinrad’s chaotic sense of humor and occasional insane flourishes (hallucinogenic software, an underground movement called the “Reality Liberation Front”) elevating it from being just another fable about the power of music.
Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand
In a house in the English countryside named Wylding Hall, a psychedelic folk outfit named Windhollow Faire records what will become their magnum opus, the titular album Wylding Hall. In the process, their lead singer mysteriously disappears and is never heard from again. Decades later, a documentary attempts to piece together just what happened during those fateful recording sessions, revealing the twisted story behind a landmark album. The book tells its story in a manner similar to musical oral histories, with the different band members’ interviews woven together into a narrative of gothic horror and musical history. Hand has a clear love of music, and seems well-versed in both rock history and a certain, very English strain of horror; the result is a chilling reimagining of an acid-soaked musical era and an excellent riff on the mythologies behind classic albums.
War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull
One of the first modern-era works of dark urban fantasy, Bull’s novel follows Eddi, a struggling rock musician in Minneapolis, after she quits her band and breaks up with her boyfriend following a disastrous final set. Approached by an odd stranger who reveals himself as a shapeshifting phouka, Eddi finds herself swept up into a war between light and dark faerie, neither side exactly sociable to humans—even the ones they need to use as tools. As Eddi tries to juggle her mortal life (getting a new band together, dealing with her breakup, nosy landladies) and her duties as a kind of balance of power between immortal factions, things heat up, and she soon finds herself hunted by the Unseelie Queen of Air and Darkness. The disparate plotlines merge in an explosive rock duel with the fae queen. Bull, a real-life musician (she once belonged to a folk group made up of fantasy authors that called themselves Cats Laughing) blends the mythology of rock music, a deep love for her home city of Minneapolis, and elements of mythic fantasy into a dark but humorous, highly suspenseful read.
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
Taking its cues from the glamour of Eurovision and the truly transformative power of pop music, Valente (no stranger to weird and wonderful premises) ramps up the conflict to intergalactic levels. After a brutal series of first contacts-gone-wrong known as the Sentience Wars rip the universe asunder, the various sapient species get together for a pop music contest called the Megagalactic Grand Prix. Rather than risk more interstellar strife, they agree to establish the rules of galactic governance as follows: all newly spacefaring (or just about) species are forced to choose a musical champion to compete in the Grand Prix, and if they come in last, their entire species is atomized. The book manages to match pop music’s air of the bubbly and absurd while keeping the subject matter deadly serious, presenting a story of getting the band back together and fighting for your art and your species, but overloading it with 11-foot-tall lobster creatures, flaming disco balls of armageddon, and a surprising number of Enrico Fermi jokes. It all holds together surprisingly well, and has certainly won Valente a new legion of fans (not to mention a Hugo Award nomination).
What SFF books get your toes tapping and your head banging?