I’ve been reading a lot of stories lately that are more fun than scary. More spooky than horrifying. It’s what I prefer, usually. When I pick up a book, I’m looking for a certain mood and atmosphere rather than anything more visceral. As we get closer to Hallowe’en, though, I start feel that it itch for proper horror, waiting eagerly to be scratched. That’s when I turn to Grady Hendrix, a writer that I know will, like any UPS worker worth their soul, always deliver.
We Sold Our Souls is the story of Kris Pulaski, a former rock star living out her dull and dreary middle age existence as a night clerk in a cheap chain hotel. Kris was the lead guitarist in Dürt Würk, a nineties metal ensemble that never quite made it thanks to the machinations of lead singer, Terry Hunt, who, at the expense of the rest of the group, went on to fame and superstardom. After meeting with another down-on-his-luck bandmate, Kris soon finds out the true circumstances behind Hunt’s meteoric rise: he met the devils at a crossroads and sold the souls of his friends. Fueled by rage and a desperate desire to just understand why, she lights out towards Hellstock ’19, a festival headlined by Hunt that will ostensibly serve as his farewell show, only Kris is certain there are far more depraved designs at hand.
This is a novel with a recognizable enough premise to be sure, but as the saying goes, still waters run deep, and the sheer amount of themes explored in this novel is enough to take one’s breath away: social class and poverty; conspiracies and mainstream mores; sexism and misogyny; fandom and toxic tendencies; art and commercialism. It is epic and overwhelming in scope, but much like his legendary namesake, Hendrix plays these themes on his guitar with a skillful, experienced hand.
Which bring us to the music.
I always get a kick out of a stories that make me appreciate a subject matter or a subculture in which I hold next-to-no interest. I’m not very into hardcore rock music. I enjoy a handful of songs and bands but, despite my uncle’s best efforts, I’m just not anywhere close to being a metalhead, nor do I have any interest to be. But I’ll be damned if this novel didn’t have me nodding along to the music it was making me hear in my head.
Kris put her fingers on the second fret, strummed, and while the string was still vibrating, before she could think, Kris slid her hand down to the fifth fret, flicked the strings twice, then instantly slid her hand to the seventh fret and strummed it twice, and she wasn’t stopping, her wrist ached but she dragged it down to ten, then twelve, racing to keep up with the riff she heard inside her head, the riff she’d listened to on Sabbath’s second album over and over again, the riff she played in her head as she walked to McNutt’s, as she sat in algebra class, as she lay in bed at night. The riff that said they all underestimated her, they didn’t know what she had inside, they didn’t know that she could destroy them all.
And suddenly, for one moment, “Iron Man” was in the basement. She played it to an audience of no one, but it had sounded exactly the same as it did on the album. The music vibrated in every atom of her being. You could cut her open and look at her through a microscope and Kris Pulaski would be “Iron Man” all the way down to her DNA.
It speaks a lot as to Hendrix’s writing. This heavy metal horror novel is written with such earnestness and fervor that not only do you hear the music being described in the page, it makes you feel it as well. Which is the most important thing: music means nothing without a listener, just as story means nothing without the reader. We must feel what the character feels. In this particular instance, we must hear what the character hears as well. It’s a rough tune, but the message behind it is as sweet as anything.
The blues were about the pain and struggle of living inside Black Iron Mountain. Metal showed you a door.
I first became familiar with Hendrix’s work a couple of years ago with his New Wave throwback My Best Friend’s Exorcism, a book I started because of a Stranger Things-induced eighties binge and finished with a fierce love for the story it told and the characters within it. My experience with this book was similar: I expected it to be good and to enjoy it, but the premise wasn’t one that initially grabbed me. I finished loving it, wholly and completely. Loving the story’s message of hope in defiance of all the horrific, hopeless things that happen within. Loving what it had to say about the importance of creativity and art, and how the human soul truly resides within those concepts.
“Souls are the best part of us,” JD said from the shadows. “Our passions, our dreams. We sell them and lose our creativity, our songs, our spark. We can no longer imagine anything bigger than what’s in front of our faces, we can no longer dream of a better world than Black Iron Mountain.
At the end, though, what I loved most about We Sold Our Souls was Kris, our indomitable, vulnerable, metal-as-all-hell protagonist. The woman with the axe and the iron will. “A girl with a guitar never has to apologize for anything,” is a constant refrain throughout the novel. Kris embodies that conceit perfectly, and I already miss reading about her.
KIM HUNT: What’s it like to be a woman in a metal band? Do you face any problems when you’re touring? Is it harder to get fans to respect you? And what about the image of women metal portrays? Do you think heavy metal creates positive role models for women?
KRIS PULASKI: I don’t know about all that. I just want to play.
— 101.7 WFNX, “FNX Weekends”
March 23, 1994