Schow, early 1990s
Middle-aged Lucas Ellington, fresh out of a stint in a fancy, relaxing psychiatric "home," is attempting normalcy again. His beloved daughter was trampled to death at a performance by LA's heavy metal bad boys Whip Hand, Lucas went over the deep end and threatened Gabriel Stannard, the lead singer, but today, Lucas just wants to drive up to his cabin in the California wilds and chill, alone. He touches base with his business partner, Burt, with whom he runs an advertising company, as well as the female psychiatrist, Sara, who might be falling in love with him. Both think Lucas is well on his way to recovery... but he is not. In his still-fevered brain, Lucas wants to lay the members of Whip Hand to waste, kill 'em all, no mercy, and hidden in that secluded cabin is an arsenal direct from any Nam vet's worst nightmare... or wet dream.
There are some terrific moments of tension scattered throughout Kill Riff, scenes that Schow treats with loving care: Lucas stalking the catwalk of a concert hall while a metal band goes through its ear-splitting pyrotechnics and thousands of kids in screaming worship; an abused young woman standing up for the first and final time to her grinning terrorizer; an injured sheriff crawling to his patrol car to radio for help. Gripping stuff in Schow's singular, stinging prose. No surprise he began writing more crime thrillers later in his career long after that whole splatterpunk thing was over. He throws in some twists that are just devastating, devastating I tell you! That's what I remembered most about the novel: the unexpected events that change everything.
UK paperback, 1990
But those twists aren't enough. The problem is that the scenes linking these set pieces vary in quality and reader interest level. Lucas discussing Whip Hand trivia with a cynical record shop manager rings true and cute, and Schow has a skill with detailing old friends Burt and Lucas and how they talk to one another. But rocker Stannard is a just a spoiled, posturing douchebag, so it's no fun listening to him expound on anything, and all his hanger-ons and bandmates are complete creeps. Why do I care if they stand up to Lucas? Anything to do with Stannard's slinky Euromodel girlfriend Sertha is just wasting time. Once Lucas's true self is revealed, the less of him the better. Minor characters pop in and out, often more interesting than the leads. You just want Lucas and Stannard to meet, draw their weapons, and kill each other, get it all over with! Blast away guys, nobody's gonna miss ya. Both men get what's coming to 'em, but will you still care by the end?
Schow loves the minutiae of subconscious motivation, self-reflection, repressed fears, idle speculations, and the contemporary (well, '80s contemporary) Los Angeles lingo of ad firms, psychiatry, and show-biz schmoozers. That's an area Schow has always mined in his short fiction, in his own particular style. His characters talk and talk and talk, diving deep into their own heads and trying to get inside others'. They are hyper-articulate but at times the reader will definitely think, People don't actually talk like that (unless everybody was snorting coke off-page; I mean the setting is 1980s LA). Between that and their dorky jokes, the dialogue alone can be exhausting. And Schow's experience as a men's adventure scribe mean lots of details about weaponry. This can be difficult to integrate into a narrative, and my personal tolerance level for gritty realistic odes to the AR-15, the M16, and the AK-47 is virtually nil. It's not that Schow doesn't work this stuff in well, it's that I tune out for it.
UK hardcover, 1989
I wasn't too taken with Schow's depiction of the '80s metal music scene either. As a dedicated reader of Circus and Hit Parader from 1983 till about 1988 (basically a generation in pop music), I think I can call foul on some of it. He's got guys in metal bands playing keyboards, guys with bald heads and names from the punk scene, dudes with muscles and Mohawks. So he's not describing WASP or Motley Crue or Dokken or Iron Maiden or Judas Priest or Motorhead, but actually more a band like the Plasmatics. Which actually kind of makes sense, because out of all those folks the only person I can imagine taking up arms against a rabid, raging father bent on vengeance would be Plasmatics singer Wendy O. Williams. What, I'm supposed to think Vince Neil would do that? Ha! Hardly. Is that Schow's point, all these wannabe badasses in metal bands thought they were all walking the mean streets but at heart they were really just pussies? Maybe so. Gabriel Stannard, beholden to the bullshit bad-boy code, sure ends up paying a high price trying to prove he's the real deal. Ironic, no?