Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Kill Riff by David J. Schow (1988): Ain't It a Shame To Be Shot Down in Flames

Another re-read of a novel I loved back in the horror hey-day. There is no horror as fans know and love it in David J. Schow's 1988 novel The Kill Riff (Tor paperback published May 1989), despite it bearing the icon of Tor's horror line; this is a suspense thriller through and through. The most accurate blurb about is from Penthouse, that bastion of literary acumen, and it states the novel's high-concept succinctly: "Gives us the nightmarish psychology behind the systematic murders of a heavy-metal band." A dark nightmarish tune, Schow's first novel is all revenge and madness and the toll it all takes on the human psyche. Like lots of Schow's short fiction there is no supernatural element, and none is necessary. People can do crazy all by themselves.

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.

The Kill Riff revels in a noxious stew of toxic masculinity. Lucas is obsessed with Whip Hand, stung by visions of his daughter's last moments worshiping at the rock'n'roll altar. He begins filling a room in that cabin with records and tapes and videos and posters of the band. Planning murder on large, media-saturated scale is a delicate and involved business, as the band has broken up and the members all play in different bands, so Lucas must navigate tour itineraries and concert hall logistics and backstage passes. His Nam experience make all that cake. Meanwhile we meet Gabriel Stannard, the cool and charismatic rock god who knows the whole circus is a sham to "make the teenies cream" but realizes, as his old bandmates are picked off one by one, that Lucas Ellington is gunning for  him, and that's as real as it gets. With the help of his bodyguard Horus and bald maniacal guitar player Cannibal Rex, Stannard amasses his own arsenal for a final showdown. Cue collision course straight for chaos in the final chapters, immovable object meets irresistible force.

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?

I really wanted to like Kill Riff on this reread, because I loved it way back when (even though I had the same complaints about the band stuff) but I only enjoyed the book in fits and starts, and can't really recommend it, even to readers, like me, who have loved his short stories. Oh well. And I haven't given up on Schow at all: what I really want to do now is track down a cheap copy of his 1990 horror novel The Shaft, which for whatever reason was never published in the States. I mean, you can't beat this cover:


Adam said...

I've got a signed first edition of this that I still haven't read, go figure.

Regardless, I'm a HUGE fan of Schow's short fiction and, for my money, Not From Around Here is one of the most genuinely frightening monster stories of the 20th century.

And I've read The Shaft and I've never understood why this didn't get published here and why it isn't wayyy more well-regarded. It blew my mind, that's for sure. It's bleak, depressing, probing, bizarre, inexplicable, tense, moving, and interesting. The drug angles played in it are very realistic and his vision of Chicago under ice is a great setting. And that big-ole worm on the cover? Oh man.

Will Errickson said...

I've got a signed first edition too! That was the one I read way back when, but I think it's stored, still these many years later, in my parents' basement. Bought the paperback for my collection. And I loved "Not from Around Here" as well.

Sorry I can't say you should get to reading KILL RIFF right away...

Lou said...

I Know I've read the shaft. Was it exerpted in "The Horror Show" or "Cemetery Dance"?

Ron Clinton said...

I think Schow's short fiction is terrific, but I've yet to read a full-length novel from him that impresses me as much (and that includes THE SHAFT).

Will Errickson said...

Lou, according to ISFDB, it was excerpted both in NOVA EXPRESS and MIDNIGHT GRAFFITI.

JK said...

Thanks for this one. Just bought a copy on ebay. Keep it comin.

Lincoln said...

Just finished 'The Shaft' last week, and thought it was excellent.
Have 'The Kill Riff' on the shelf, but it doesn't really appeal to me, but you may have swayed me, even if your review is only lukewarm.

Authorfan said...

Been waiting for a cheap copy of THE SHAFT too. I'll even accept a digital one. Whichever comes first.

Alejandro Omidsalar said...

If I'm not mistaken, The Shaft started its short, fiery life as a short story published in the Spring 1990 issue of Weird Tales. That was the first place I read it, but I ended up tracking down the novel and digging that one even more. I think they're both great.

Happy hunting to everyone novel-wise (I borrowed it from a well-stocked university's main library), but the WT back issue is pretty affordable on Amazon. I found mine in a local used book shop.

Long live Schow!

ishouldbeking said...

Ooh, this is encouraging me to dig out my cheap used copy of The Shaft, which frequently glares from the bookshelf in all its euro softcover glory.

Adam said...

I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one who loved The Shaft. I'm really at a loss as to why it didn't get a lot more word of mouth and recognition from the cognoscente out there, but it is what it is. Personally, I don't think Schow has ever been as good in the long form as his short stories, in fact I've been kind of plodding through his novel Gunwork, but The Shaft is classic splat at its best. In fact, it's on my short-list of best splatpunk novels (not that there's that many really great ones) and damn near the top.
The Shaft can melt steel.