JANUARY 9, 2019
GLOSS HIS NOVELS from Amazon blurbs and you might call Grady Hendrix a gimmick writer. He typically pairs a funny topic with a horror veneer (Ikea + evil prison warden ghost: Horrorstör, 1980s teen flick + possession: My Best Friend’s Exorcism), and his books often include a range of engaging paratexts (a mock Ikea catalog, a faux high school yearbook). But calling Hendrix a gimmick writer does a huge disservice to one of contemporary fiction’s most sensitive observers of the horrors that arise around — and sometimes because of — our efforts to grow closer with other humans. Through all the horror and tumult, in the humor and the nostalgia animating the psychological growth of his focal characters, Hendrix brings an encyclopedic awareness of the ways capital weighs down the labor force, crushing blue-collar workers in their daily efforts to keep ahead of the poverty line day after day.
Hendrix’s newest novel, We Sold Our Souls, won’t do much to rescue him from the gimmick writer gloss, but it puts the truth to the Wall Street Journal’s description of the writer as a “national treasure” in their review of his previous novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism. We Sold Our Souls explores heavy metal, its fantasy allegories, and the horrors those allegories reveal. It explores the experience of the economically oppressed — the crappy jobs folks work just so they can work another day, the dreams forgotten (because who has time for dreams between shifts?), the desire to make art that bares the raw emotion and pain of poverty and the anger with a world that seems not to care. It addresses the inauthenticity and carefully crafted emotional landscape of “sellout” artists, and the underbelly of a violent America. It’s about Black Iron Mountain and soul-sucking corpse beasties. It’s rad.
We Sold Our Souls tells the story of Kris Pulaski in the wake of touring with her 1990s heavy metal band Dürt Würk (after “dirt worker,” a nickname for graveyard diggers), starting 20 years after her best friend, band co-founder, and lead singer Terry Hunter stiffed her, Scottie Rocket (rhythm guitar), Bill (drums), and Tuck (bass) with contracts that gave Terry sole rights to the band’s discography. That contract transformed him into the Blind King, headliner of nu metal supergroup Koffin (think KISS meets Slipknot meets Linkin Park), now the world’s most famous band. Working a night clerk shift at a Best Western in one dying Rust Belt town at a time, ostracized from her former bandmates because of her actions on the poorly remembered “contract night” all those years ago, Kris lives the life of a nobody. But seeing billboards for Koffin’s farewell tour lights a fire under Kris to seek out what she and the band deserve.
What follows is a cross-country adventure through conspiracy theories, metalheads, and intense scenes of visceral horror, as Kris sets out to figure out what really happened on contract night. In the first third of the novel, she meets up with her former band members, a reunion that ultimately ends in Scottie Rocket’s suicide and the murder of his family by UPS deliverymen assassins. Kris falls into the arms of Tuck, who schemes with Bill to imprison her in an elite, cult-like rehab facility named the Well. The Well is built atop the bones of the Witch House, a derelict rental in the Kentucky wilderness where Dürt Würk used to record, and which also served as the long-ago site of contract night.
The middle third depicts Kris’s escape from the Well. Overcoming mind-numbing drugs, Kris beats up her captors with her guitar and discovers creepy monsters slurping out the souls of the rehab inmates, eventually remembering that the same beasts carried out this vile procedure on her and Dürt Würk all those years ago. She descends into the eponymous Well, crawling her way through pipes and caves and guano and bugs and darkness to escape rehab.
In the final third, we see Kris down and out in small-town America; she’s missed Koffin’s farewell tour, but the tour proved so successful that Koffin is hosting Hellstock ’19, a 50th-anniversary celebration of Woodstock staged with heavy metal bands. Kris believes Terry is using Hellstock to sell more souls, the same way he sold Dürt Würk’s souls on contract night. More cross-country hijinks ensue, including a mob of Koffin fans violently tearing apart Kris’s friend JD at a rest stop. In the end, Kris reunites with Terry onstage and together with Tuck they play Dürt Würk’s final album, Troglodyte. No concert-goer souls are sold, the performance and the album save the world, and Kris rises to become a heavy metal legend.
We Sold Our Souls provides a convoluted but intelligible journey through the back-and-forth of life in poor America, Kris going where she must to do what she can to survive and try to stop Terry. Troglodyte serves as the heart of the story and its critique of capitalism. Like many death metal albums of the genre’s heyday, a fantasy story forms the underlying narrative: the tale of hero Troglodyte who rises up to throw off the chains of Black Iron Mountain’s oppression. Kris, Scottie Rocket, and JD believe Troglodyte tells the story of the world, forming the blueprint for Kris’s quest to defeat Terry and the soul-sucking monsters. Hendrix describes the album track-for-track throughout Kris’s journey, detailing the sounds, the guitar runs, the drum beats, the vocals. For Kris, the lyrics become a mantra and battle cry; in the course of her journey, they lead the way, as she and JD perform close readings of the lyrics that would leave any English professor giddy.
Between chapters, Hendrix provides paratexts — snippets of interviews with Dürt Würk, radio transcripts of discussions about Troglodyte — that drive home the album’s legendary status in the heavy metal scene. After contract night, Terry destroyed all but a few copies that circulated among bootleggers. Troglodyte told the truth about the soul-suckers and Black Iron Mountain, the force to which all successful musicians and sellouts owe their millions. Kris brings the legend of Troglodyte to half-a-million metal fans. The lyrics are bad and the sound isn’t great, but the music is profound; it’s authentic, and bares truth as critique.
The novel and its fascination with heavy metal and the mythology of Troglodyte poke subtle fun at the heavy metal genre and its self-seriousness, but also embrace that seriousness as a platform for critique. As with most horror novels, the monsters and moments of fear and revulsion in We Sold Our Souls are both affective, provoking emotional responses, and also deeply allegorical. Hendrix’s corpse-like soul-suckers, who gain access to souls through the fine-print stipulations in contracts, force black bile out of their unconscious victims and slowly lap it away with hideous tongues. They are creepy, the bread and butter of horror. The pages-long description of Kris’s escape from the Well is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read and shares much in common with a similar scene from his earlier novel Horrorstör. Hendrix knows his audience; being trapped, knowing death is coming and we can do nothing to stop it, creates more visceral terror than any monster, and he writes the terror expertly. The entrapment Kris feels, Black Iron Mountain literally pressing her down with no space to move, her body breaking and her lungs collapsing — this too is allegory, for capitalism, for bills, for living paycheck-to-paycheck, knowing the next paycheck might not come.
Hendrix’s exploration of capitalism as horror in We Sold Our Souls restores to sight all that we are blind to, all that we blind ourselves to (sometimes purposefully, to make it all bearable), as we sell our souls, not to some Christian devil but to Black Iron Mountain, that specter of capital that takes, takes, takes. Hendrix’s description of Kris busking, purged of hope and lost in middle America after her escape from the Well, captures this deftly:
Every song was the same song. These were songs for people who were scared to open their mailboxes, whose phones 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.
The songs she plays are not the same — they range from heavy metal (Black Sabbath, Zeppelin) to the blues (Lead Belly) to protest anthems (Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie) — but they share a purpose summarized in the album at the center of We Sold Our Souls. The mythology of Dürt Würk’s Troglodyte rears its head again and again in similar passages that capture in eerie encyclopedic detail, so painfully familiar to those of us who are/were those people, the life of economic hardship in the United States.
Kris, her nameless busking partner, the dead homeless woman in the graveyard, the half million swarming at Hellstock ’19: we are all Troglodyte waiting for Poincare’s butterfly to remind us that this is not all there is. We have to crawl out, escape Black Iron Mountain, and open the door with the cerulean hue. Grady Hendrix reminds us in We Sold Our Souls that there’s a way and a hope. Metal never dies.