Man has been using song as a storytelling form for a long time. From the scops (minstrels) of England to the Kobzars of Ukraine and then eventually to rock and roll bands, people have been weaving yarns and telling them through songs for centuries. Bands like popular prog-rock/symphonic metal act Symphony X have taken this one step further with themed albums such as The Odyssey, in which they recount Odysseus’ journeys through songs that tell of his encounter with Circe, to when he wants to find his way back home.
Many a writer uses a song as an inspiration for a short story, because all songs (well, the good ones, anyway) at their fundamental core tell a tale of some kind. There’s usually a structure with a beginning, middle, and an end, and the chorus, which is usually the overall theme. Editor Marc Ciccarone had all of these things in mind when putting together Rock ‘N’ Roll is Dead: Dark Tales Inspired by Music.
Each tale has a caption under the title that explains which particular rock song inspired the writer to pen the story. Everything from “Nightcrawler” by Judas Priest to “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘N’ Roses is featured, and the results make for a highly entertaining story. If you enjoyed what Acid Grave Press did with Living After Midnight, you’ll appreciate what Rock ‘N’ Roll is Dead sets out to accomplish.
As a hardcore heavy metal fan myself, I thought the dedication to recently deceased Black Sabbath (later renamed Heaven and Hell) frontman, Ronnie James Dio, added much class to an already classy anthology. The first tale, inspired by Dio’s Last in Line, is called End of the Line and it’s unique in that the entire story is told through ‘we’ statements that describe a Kurt Cobain-esque generation, and it ends with “We’ll always have the music,” which could be taken to mean that with all their bad behaviour, vices, and regrets, at least there will always be music in their lives, which defines them.
Faking It recounts the story of Elsie, who struggles to make things work with her uptight lover, Gwen, and to cope. Elsie invents an imaginary friend of sorts in the form of Marianne, a punk rock chick with an unapologetic attitude, only it turns out that Marianne may not be so imaginary, and sometimes the voices people hear can drive them to do horrendous things.
Thermogenic is one of my top picks, a gruesome story of a young man who works in a burn ward. His work starts to take over his life, particularly because of an obese patient who has suffered an extensive amount of damage and is assigned to the main character because of his experience with war wounds (he’s thought to be the only one that can stomach how gross she looks). It starts to affect his relationship with his girlfriend to the point that he hallucinates about the patient, but because he refuses to leave the job, it takes its toll on him in a sad way.
The Language of Bones is also another well-written tale about a girl on a beach who is reconciling with her boyfriend, only he starts to fuse their bones together in a bid to make her his queen. In the case of La Caza, Brady is looking for his lost love, Susan, but his persistence pays off in a nasty way when he discovers los muertos viventes, the living dead, infected by a cat of all things.
Another highlight for me was Saving Grace, which drops one twist after another and keeps you guessing. Grace doesn’t know where her cheating husband is nor does she care, but the cop she’s dating, Zach, takes a keen interest. Things get much worse when he probes where he shouldn’t. In Special, the main character learns that not all preventative measures work against werewolves.
Fans of the Black Dahlia case will like Beth Short and the Carnival of the Damned, which takes the point of view of the guy responsible for the Dahlia’s downfall, only she’s not the last person he killed.
Other notables included Synthetic Messiah, inspired by Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode, one of my all time favorite songs, which tells the story of Carson James, who used to be very religious and used to go to revival preachers to try to cure his mother of her cancer. After her death, he becomes embittered and seeks out revenge on priests, particularly Reverend Fleming, and proves that the lure of money is too much to resist even for some clergy.
Another of my favorite songs, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen gets the short story treatment in Osaka’s Fallen Son, which shows a guy who gets involved with the Yakuza and writes letters to his dead mother confessing all of his crimes. He gets mixed up with the wrong people and suffers a bitter downfall when he is forced to confront all of his past victims in a very unusual manner.
End of the Road shows the after-effects that a child suffers after he’s the sole survivor of a car crash on his birthday. He never celebrates it again, but also finds a horrible way to get over it.
I also consider The Rule Breaker to be one of the best stories of the anthology, as it tells the tale of a kid who sees his favorite wrestler lose the championship belt at the hands of a heel character nicknamed The Beast. Years later, the boy becomes a wrestler and trains to face The Beast, which turns out to be a very fitting name for the guy, who siphons energy from his opponents via a bear hug.
Onto another of my favorite songs, Nightcrawler by Judas Priest, which inspired Him by Mark Taylor, about a group of townspeople infected by fear who learn that there are just some creatures who won’t die. I also enjoyed Untethered, which shows how the most popular girls in school get turned into voracious vampires after a spell gone awry.
Another notable story similar to Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is Trap Set about a drummer who is dying to get his hands on a drum set owned by his favorite drummer, and spends $3000 on eBay to buy the coveted package, only he doesn’t take heed of the fact that the previous owner, Ricky Riddell, disappeared soon after he obtained the drums. With each new owner, the instrument finds a new victim…
The Replacements is also a great one to check out, showing a world in which people switch bodies like they upgrade iPods. When they get tired of their old bodies or want an upgrade, they switch to a new meat suit.
Robert Essig’s Window to the Soul, inspired by another favorite, Billy Idol’s Eyes Without a Face shows a scorned blind woman who finds herself in Las Vegas, determined to find the man who ruined her life. The guy is French (what better culture of charmers), and tells a waitress that he needs her eyes, but lies and says that it means she’s beautiful. Innovative in the sense that the guy consumes women’s eyes to see what they have seen, the story ends on an appropriate note after Trisha, the main character, gives Frenchie a taste of his own medicine.
Finally, Rex McGuire’s The City, inspired by Welcome to the Jungle tells of a city within a city not unlike Simon R. Green’s Nightside where the main character, Max, is hired to find a pregnant teen who has gone missing. But before he can leave, he has to face up to his own shady past within the city.
Overall, it’s a great anthology with many strong offerings that anyone who enjoys horror stories will love, but also, people who are rock fans but who don’t necessarily dabble in horror will want to pick this one up because the authors have done a wonderful job bringing the lyrics to life while making the stories their own at the same time.