Originally I was just going to run my review of Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls over at my SF blog. But selling your soul to the Devil has a rich history in hillbilly storytelling, from Robert Johnson to The Devil Went Down to Georgia to Some Dark Holler. Dolly Parton’s music is an important plot point. And it has lines like this:
Every song was the same song. These were songs for people who were scared to open their mailboxes, whose phone calls never brought good news. These were songs for people standing at the crossroads waiting for the bus. People who bounced between debt collectors and dollar stores, collection agencies and housing offices, family court and emergency rooms, waiting for a check that never came, waiting for a court date, waiting for a call back, waiting for a break, crushed beneath the wheel.
That? That is in the Hillbilly Highways wheelhouse.
I am a fan of Grady Hendrix. His essays on 1980s pulp horror fiction, the resulting book Paperbacks From Hell, and his commentary on the Dukes of Hazzard remake DVD special features. But I had never read any of his fiction. We Sold Our Souls struck me as a great place to start. And I was right! This is a damned good book.
Kris is somewhere in the morass of middle age working at a dead-end job on the overnight shift at the front desk of a dingy hotel. But her life wasn’t always that way. There was a time when she was at the top of the world, playing guitar in a metal band at the cusp of breaking out. And then it all came crashing down.
When she sees a billboard for the retirement tour of her former bandmate, Terry Hunt (also known as The Blind King), and his new band (Koffin), she starts tracking down the other members of her old band, Dürt Würk (a play on a term for grave digging). Why have their lives been so miserable while Terry hurtled to superstardom? What happened to their lost album Troglodyte (“the album Terry had destroyed, the one he never wanted released, the one that scared Black Iron Mountain”)? What or who is Black Iron Mountain? Why do they fear it? And what happened on contract night?
Seeking the answers to those questions will eventually lead her to Hellstock ’19:
The original Woodstock was all about hippies humping in the mud. Woodstock ’99 was a disaster where everything got set on fire. Hellstock ’19 promised to combine both those events together in an apocalyptic end-times party.
If you doubt that Terry is history’s greatest monster, consider that he says things like this:
Koffin sings about real things, about social change, about actual emotions, about 9/11. Metal is an act. Koffin is real.
We Sold Our Souls is very much a book about metal. Metal heads are famously pretentious. We Sold Our Souls works in part because Hendrix loves the music enough to take the piss out of it in service of the story, but he never does it out of meanness.
We Sold Our Souls is also very much a horror story. It has fantastical elements, to be sure, but they are in service of the horror. As the name suggests, We Sold Our Souls features both literal and figurative take on the selling of souls. The latter should be obvious to anyone familiar with the music industry. The former is maybe too thinly explained to work as a fantasy, but it is more than enough for Hendrix’s horror purposes.
The man knows his business (it must have been reading all of those cheap 1980s paperbacks). He knows that horror should first and foremost be creepy, disquieting, and unsettling, rather than gross and gory. I mean, there is some gore. This is a book in which someone gets their face ripped off, after all. But Hendrix gives us the former in spades.
We Sold Our Souls is a story about metal, about the working class kids who find meaning in it, about the way the recording industry inevitably works to suck the soul out of any music it comes into contact with, about making bad choices to because they hurt someone else or because we don’t appreciate the price. It is about the things in dark corners that feed off of us at night, about the violence in the dark corners of our heart. It is about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, or at least of one woman, even in the face of watching a man get his, er, face ripped off. It is scary as hell, but uplifting and deep nonetheless.
5 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: The publisher provided me with a review copy of We Sold Our Souls via NetGalley.
 Kris may know metal, but she doesn’t know country.
 On the other hand, there are lines like this: “Fuck nu metal. If I’m going to play metal I don’t want that whiny baby crap. I want fucking dragons and shit.” That is much more Every Day Should Be Tuesday.