In a perceptive review of Grady Hendrix’s 2018 novel We Sold Our Souls for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sean Guynes describes the author’s M.O. pretty perfectly: “He typically pairs a funny topic with a horror veneer (Ikea + evil prison warden ghost: [2014’s] Horrorstör, 1980s teen flick + possession: [2016’s] My Best Friend’s Exorcism), and his books often include a range of engaging paratexts (a mock Ikea catalog, a faux high school yearbook).” The thoroughly engrossing and unexpectedly hard-hitting We Sold Our Souls is no exception, pairing heavy metal subcultures with a plot that involves actual deals with the Devil. The book also features an impressive “range of engaging paratexts,” including radio transcripts; liner notes; newspaper excerpts; and the paperback edition’s fantastic, Rolling Stone-inspired cover (pictured here). Lest you use these bold stylistic flourishes to pigeonhole Hendrix as a “gimmicky” writer, however, Guynes goes on to explain that nothing could be further from the truth. “…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,” he points out. “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.” Though this is true of his novels broadly speaking, these qualities are perhaps most crystal clear in We Sold Our Souls. In it, we meet Kris Pulaski, former lead guitarist of the once-promising indie metal band Dürt Würk. But that’s ancient history: now she works nights at the front desk of a Pennsylvania Best Western, is barely scraping by, and can’t remember the last time she picked up an instrument. The downward spiral of her life began on a fateful (but only hazily remembered) night years earlier, when the band’s lead singer, Terry Hunt, convinced his bandmates to sign away their rights to Dürt Würk’s entire catalog. He is now a bonafide nu metal icon known as “The Blind King,” and the others have distanced themselves from Kris, blaming her for their collective missed opportunity at superstardom (among other things). As “Hellstock 2019,” Terry’s over-hyped and heavily commercialized music festival, ramps up its already ubiquitous advertising campaign, Kris seeks and finds solace in her guitar. She rediscovers her love of heavy metal but also revives some long-dormant memories in the process. These flashbacks further inspire some important questions about what really happened on “contract night.” For instance, why can’t she reconstruct the events of the evening in full? And, on top of everything else, is it just Kris, or do the lyrics of Troglodyte, Dürt Würk’s almost aggressively “lost” album, seem to have strangely divinatory capabilities? So begins a journey that will reconnect estranged bandmates and see their resilient lead guitarist taking up an epic, supernatural struggle between good and evil. As genre fiction, We Sold Our Souls is immensely satisfying — Hendrix really knows what he’s doing here. This is hardly surprising, though, considering that he literally wrote the book on these sorts of page-turners (2017’s exceptional, Bram Stoker Award-winning Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction) and there are big- and small-screen adaptations of his three other novels in the offing. (I have a strong suspicion that we’ll be hearing much more about him in the future, and deservedly so.) In particular, the midsection of the book, which finds Kris on the run from a variety of malevolent forces, is terrifically suspenseful (think The Fugitive by way of The Twilight Zone). But what really makes Hendrix’s book special are those powers of observation to which Guynes alludes: the characters, communities, and settings in We Sold Our Souls are endowed with a degree of verisimilitude that many works of popular fiction strain to achieve. Of special note in this regard is the attention paid to the terrible realities of toxic masculinity and sexual violence; Hendrix is frank in his presentation of the problems faced by Kris and other women, both within the music world (e.g. the prevalence of rape and sexual assault at concerts) and everywhere else (e.g. sexism in interpersonal and group dynamics). At the same time, he can see how these women crucially support and look after one another, as well as stand up for themselves. In this way, the book emerges in part as an affecting feminist parable. Take, for example, one of the most triumphant moments in We Sold Our Souls, which comes after a male character badly in need of a comeuppance flashes Kris a familiar smile: “The same smile men had been giving Kris her entire life. Every promoter who’d shorted her on the door because she ‘didn’t understand how clubs work.’ Every house tech who’d explained to her where her monitor really needed to be, how her guitar should be tuned, what songs she actually should play. Everyone who told her to calm down, who told her no, who told her to wait, who told her to be good, act nice, do what they say, sign a contract, play this kind of music — all of them gave her that same patronizing smile when they explained things to her and here it was again… […] Kris couldn’t help herself. She punched him. As hard as she could.” Rock on.
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