Monday, May 6, 2013

Shock Rock, edited by Jeff Gelb (1992): The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle

Brimming with monstrous mash-ups of horror and rock'n'roll, Shock Rock (Pocket Books, Jan 1992) takes the old-timey preacher scare that rock is the Devil's music not as a warning but as fait accompli. In his introduction, Jeff Gelb (editor of the long-running Hot Blood erotic horror series) points out the long relationship between rock'n'roll and horror movies and comics - so why not horror fiction (Alice Cooper says the same thing in his forward)? "At last count, less than half a dozen horror novels have attempted to meld rock and horror thematically," Gelb notes. Well, I think there is a reason for the rarity: that intertwining works wonderfully well for album covers and song lyrics, but it generally produces less than stellar horror fiction. Such is the case, sad to say, with Shock Rock.

I passed on Shock Rock when it was published, and my instincts were right. Most of the 20 tales Gelb assembled are, to not put too fine a point on it, adolescent and amateurish (I know, I know, you could describe a lot of rock'n'roll the same way and so think I'm being a hypocritical snob when I criticize the stories thusly). While there is a splatterpunk energy, too many are dorky and earnest, an outsider's imagining of what it's like to be a rock star, a drug addict, or a teenage rebel. And no Poppy Z. Brite?! She's one of the few horror writers of that era to have written with any sensitivity or authenticity about how music informs characters' lives and thoughts.

Thomas Tessier's "Addicted to Love" stands out as the best story of the lot, as its pure clear notes soar high above the cluttered, tuneless din of the rest of Shock Rock. Workaday Neil Jensen is a thoughtful music fan who likes - lives for - challenging, edgy, exciting rock music. He meets a woman at a show by The Bombsite Boys (a fictional band, well-named), a woman who tells him she likes Public Image and The The, The Cure and The Adverts.

Neil felt a tremor of excitement. If she could appreciate groups like those, she had to have some musical intelligence. He bought her a drink, reminding himself not to get his hopes up to high. He had been disappointed before, every time.

Then he gets her home, and she wants to hear a particular song, a song that is not challenging, edgy, or exciting. She wants to hear it over and over again.... Tessier can write, and has written convincingly about the music scene before, in his first novel The Nightwalker. Placing Tessier's prose within the same pages as Rex Miller's or Paul Dale Anderson's or Michael Garrett's is unfair; it only highlights how clumsy are their attempts to meld rock and horror.

1994 Pocket Books sequel

Other stories worth reading: "Vargr Rule" by Nancy Collins, a nicely sleazy werewolf tale, which contains one of the antho's most surprising scenes; Richard Christian Matheson's taut and fatalistic "Groupies," about you-know-what; and definitely "Requiem" from Brian Hodge. He creates a pretty believable art/prog-rock band of the 1970s and '80s, Grendel, who all die in a plane crash, leaving behind countless grieving fans and a rumored concept album about the Knights of the Round Table. "You Know They've Got a Helluva Band" from Stephen King mines baby-boomer dead rocker territory in a fairly by-the-numbers manner. Jimi Hendrix features in "Voodoo Child" - well, duh - Graham Masterton's contribution. It has a nicely personal vibe, a sadness about the passing of time and wild youth. "Flaming Telepaths" ends the antho, former punk singer John Shirley's swipe at smug televangelists - one of 1980s horror fiction's go-to villains.

Cooper and Shirley, 2001

The fault of Shock Rock is that too many of the authors simply have no feel for the written word, or for capturing human speech patterns and motivations; they may as well be re-telling a moldy-oldy EC Comics story, only adding more sex and graphic violence but no depth. Slapdash and junky, most don't even show a particular feel for rock'n'roll other than its most obvious trappings of sexist excess, substance abuse, and amps that go to 11. To me, that's the most shocking thing of all.


Unknown said...

This was the first horror anthology I ever read and at the time I really enjoyed a lot of the stories. But that was when I was 12 and I have not reread them, I am 34 now. I think that the best part of the book for me even then was that Alice Cooper wrote an introduction some thing about getting a cat head from a female fan. I think I keep the happy memories of the book and never reread it and go watch Monster Dog instead. :)

Will Errickson said...

I can totally see how this antho would've been awesome to a 12-year-old! But it hasn't aged well at all.

Kevin F said...

I remember not finishing this when it first came out. Most of the stories seemed too low key to be rock and roll.

Kurt said...

I know that I had Shock Rock II for a while, but I can't remember anything about it, except it wasn't as entertaining as Shock Rock.

Tim Mayer said...

It's hard to capture the excitement of rock and roll on the printed page. I don't think too many people have ever done it. I was unable to get very far into George RR Martin's FEVER DREAM when it came out. Skipp and Spector's THE SCREAM, likewise. Horror literature and rock music should be great marriage, but seldom does it work.

Padded Cell said...

"Fevre Dream" is about riverboat vampires, not rock, so I think he meant "The Armageddon Rag."

Will Errickson said...

Yep, I figured as much. I've heard varying things about RAG and own a copy; don't know if/when I'll get around to it.

SandyRavage said...

I have this. There are some entertaining dumb fun stories but it's surprisingly dullmoverall. The only rock/horror story i really enjoyed was David Schows Kill Riff.john Skipp often adds little punk rock influences here and there but not an entire premise.

SandyRavage said...

Aaaand as soon as I wrote that i remembered about The Scream by Skipp which completely goes against hat I just said.....and it was enjoyable!