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MUSIC AND THE HORROR BEAST

by Paula Guran
May 1997 (Originally published by OMNI Online)

Ray Davies of The Kinks once said: "Lou Reed doesn't need to write novels, "...he's a great songwriter and I'm sure Ernest Hemingway would have loved to have written A Walk on the Wildside."

From the most tragic of grand opera to the direst country and western woe, music is often most effective when it expresses the darkest of our emotions: pain, angst, loss, fear. We might enjoy a good love song, but we don't lose ourselves in it or feel it as deeply as we do a song about the loss of that love. Music connects instinctively, emotionally, and directly to our souls and, since communicating dark emotion is what horror is all about, there should be little surprise in finding people who create and communicate through both music and horror.

For sheer emotion and instant experience, nothing beats rock 'n' roll and a connection with horror has been noted in the past. As writer/musician John Mason Skipp points out: they are both capable of handling deep, dark emotions and symbols and they both enjoy a certain outlaw status in the culture, no matter how popular or mainstream they get. "But," he reminds us, "Horror, like music, does not always rock. Neither holds the patent on fun and sometimes being an outlaw is just a glorified way of looking at one's marginalized existence on the cultural fringe."

Skipp, best known in horror for his writing partnership with Craig Spector that produced splatterpunk favorites The Light at the End, The Scream, and more, is himself a musician who "just put it down for ten years, while I wrote horror fiction. Now I've put down horror fiction, picked up my guitar, and my human voice. For the past five years, since disappearing from print, I have run with a couple of bands and had lots of rockin' adventures. I've often used the term 'creative crop rotation' to describe the process of laterally moving from one art form to another. At root, all art stems from the same impulse, which is our attempt to unravel the mysteries of existence, make some sense of our experience, and pass the savings on to you."

John Shirley, the notable author of a number horror and SF novels as well as short fiction, has always been involved creatively in music as well as writing. He's written lyrics for a number of groups including Blue Öyster Cult and fronted punk rock bands like Obsession and SadoNation. A new CD, Red Star, with his current band, The Panther Moderns, was recently released. Like Skipp, Shirley feels making literature and making music are "two sides of the same coin. In my head, the coin's always flipping. Inside me they are interchangeable. There's music in the writing and writing in the music."

For Shirley the connection between horror and music is "whatever you make of it. Any art form can interpenetrate any other if you can handle the heat of your media. But obviously some sounds, some tones, generate emotional responses automatically. We respond to certain tones, certain combinations; some of them evoke instinctive reactions going back to primitive times. Some of them hint about personal annihilation. Some of them resonate with the dark places in the infinite."

We instinctively connect terror and noise and on the most simplistic level music is just noise. We have a primal knowledge rooted in us that noise is a warning of danger: a shout of alarm from another, the crack of a broken twig in the still of the wilderness, the howl of the unseen beast. Our adrenaline surges and we prepare to fight or run. Our ancestors also found ritual uses for rhythms that became religious practices and magic. Creating music became a type of magic.

Greg Kihn, another musician/horror writer, says his source of his creativity springs from the same place for both. "It's all the same animal," he says. Start with the magic, fill in the rest."

Kihn's first novel, The Horror Show, was nominated for the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Award for Outstanding Achievement in a First Novel. His second book, Shade of Pale, will be published later this year. His nineteenth album, also entitled The Horror Show, was released last fall as well.

For Kihn, the music/horror connection is rooted in the same popular culture that nurtured the boomers -- everything from Hammer Films to those fake wax fangs that you fit over your teeth. But his personal connection to the genre goes deeper than that. His father was a Poe scholar and Kihn grew up in a Baltimore full of ghosts and legends reading Poe beginning in grade school. "I remember owning an album called The Ivy League Trio sings Edgar Allan Poe and loving it, "says Kihn. They were folky Kingston Trio imitators, but he loved the concept. "Later when Alice Cooper grabbed my attention with 'I Love the Dead' and 'The Ballad of Dwight Fry' it reminded me of the Leaguers whining 'The Fall of the House of Usher'."

He wrote even before getting into music. "I started in elementary school writing weird comics. In junior high and high school I wrote short stories. Later, during my touring days with the band (1976-1987), I read tons of horror and mystery novels, and began seriously writing short stories of my own."

"When the hits dried up and my career tapered off, I decided to try writing professionally. The rejection slips kept coming, but one agent, Lori Perkins, decided to take a chance." Tor eventually signed Kihn to a multiple book contract.

Unlike Kihn and Shirley, Marc Levinthal, has found that, for him, music and horror serve different creative needs. His stories are just now beginning to appear in anthologies like Dark Destiny II and III, Eros ex Machina and Gargoyles. A novel is also in the works. As a musician he co-wrote the score for the film Valley Girl and he's played in "too many" bands, most recently with The Torture Chamber Ensemble and the punk/surf/metal band Glue. Marc just released Dimetrodon Collective Volume One, his first in a series of atmospheric/ ambient/ electronic CDs. Levinthal considers himself a musician first. "I've been doing music 'seriously' a lot longer than I've been writing. I used to write music with lyrics, but I got to a point where the 'rock song form' was stifling to me, and inappropriate for the images I wanted to call up. I started writing fiction to give vent to the ideas that needed a different kind of frame, ideas I thought were incredibly worthwhile, but that would wind up as pretentious, insipid rock opera if you tried to stick them into songs."

What kind of music do these horror guys make?

Levinthal's ambient electronic soundscapes on Dimetrodon tend to set up a mood of deceptive tranquillity that he then invades with disturbing dissonance. In the cut "Hitchhike", for instance, a sustained background chord shimmers like desert heat. Then an insect/snakelike rattle/pervasive thought occasionally breaks against the hot sound-sand. He overlays sounds that send you some eerie spot in your own head. You aren't really uncomfortable there -- you are just aware that perhaps you should be aware of a something lurking there.

Kihn stays lyrically and musically within a pop/rock context, but there's a subtle depth belied by the melodic lilt. In the title tune "Horror Show", Kihn draws on horror archetypes to make a personal statement: "And now I see the angry villagers/torches on fire tonight/and they're crying for redemption/they say the monster must die/and as the moon is rising/and midnight rolls around/ keep a candle in the window because I am homeward bound." He gives us a blues rendition of the legend of JFK rocked out with the despair of his generation. In the chorus of "Trials, Troubles, Tribulations", an apocalyptic Revelations-based traditional hymn, he intones: "When the fires come down from heaven/and the blood shall fill the seas/I'll be carried home by Jesus/and forever with him be." With Kihn we aren't ever entirely sure of just how seriously he takes himself here in the dark, though. In his light-hearted boogie rock, "Vampira", that ends the album, we are left wondering if the girl is a just vamp or a real vampire, but are pretty sure Kihn might date her no matter what the answer is. She's a girl who'll "get you from the start/drive a stake right through your heart/Vampira where are you tonight?"

Shirley's post-punk music confronts the listener much like his writing does. One cut is actually a short horror story; another, a compelling character study. There's poetic rant ("They say that a dead man's hair and nails continue to grow long after he's dead...") and an exploration of dark fantasy ("Charioteers/ rollin' over the hills/no they never did see/all the blood that they spilled/it caught the moonlight and drew it like dew/a secret essence to the hungry moon/and we never will climb/this mountain of skulls") On Red Star, "The world is like a thresher/separating chaff from the wheat/A movie about slashers/A New York apartment without heat". He wants to see one victimized woman dressed "in black/It makes me feel like your husband's dead/I'd like to see you in black/We could make him suffer instead..." But even the anger and the darkness are presented with wit and the wink of a world-wearied eye.

These CDs haven't yet made it to the top of the Billboard charts. That may be due to the perversity of the industry and the luck of the draw, but Del James doesn't think so. Known primarily as a music journalist, James also has lyrical co-writing credits with Guns N' Roses, The Almighty, TNT, and Testament. As a horror writer, he authored The Language Of Fear, a collection of short horror stories. He feels that "genuine musicians can't fake it. They live it 24/7 and don't care about the consequences. They're a lot like one per cent outlaw bikers in the sense that they proudly wear who they are on their sleeves. They don't go home and transform into 'regular guy'. Despite whatever sick, demented thoughts lurk inside their genius minds...most horror writers are regular guys.

"Being able to write well and being able to perform music convincingly are two completely different worlds. A great writer will never have the same conviction, the same passion, about music that a great musician does. Put a microphone in front of Elvis Presley or hand a guitar to Jimi Hendrix and words really can't describe the different levels of emotion that come across in a song. You can't expect someone who isn't born with that sort of gift to ever come close to that level of energy and excitement."

But for those of us who don't create the music, who can only feel the emotion, there are times when it is the writer who best conveys what the musician experiences. John Shirley writes of the "rock classicist" Rickenharp in his novel Eclipse:

Singing it insolently, half shouting, half warbling at the end of each note, with that fuck-you bitch tone, performing that magic act; shouting a melody. He could see doors opening in their faces...He was basted in sweat under the lights, he was squeezing sounds with his fingers and it was as if he could feel the sounds taking shape in his hands the way a sculptor feels clay shaping under his fingers, and it was like there was no gap between his hearing and the sound in his head and its coming out of the speakers. His brain, his body, his finger had closed the gap, was one supercooled circuit breaker fused shut.

It's only rock 'n' roll writing. But I like it.

Could Hemingway have cut a CD? Can Reed write a novel? Maybe not. But if anyone is going to get close to doing both these days, my bet is that it would be someone who can tap directly into the emotion called horror and make us feel the dark. -- Paula Guran, May, 1997

The music graphic used above was designed by and is used with the permission of Kevin Kuder.


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Copyright © 1997 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.