An Augmented Fourth by Tony McMillen
Tony McMillen’s An Augmented Fourth (2017) is heavy metal rock and roll horror at its wailing-guitar best. Set in 1980, the point of transition from heavy metal to punk, An Augmented Fourth blends inter-dimensional eldritch horror, David-Cronenberg-movie grotesquerie, and psychedelia in a thrash-metal twenty-minute-guitar-solo of a story.
It’s December, 1980, and Codger Burton, bassist and lyricist of the UK’s once-premiere heavy metal band, Frivolous Black, wakes up in a Boston hotel to find the city snowed in. Codger slept through the evacuation call — at least, that’s what he thinks happened.
The power is off and the city center is eerily empty, but the Hotel Alucinari is not exactly deserted. Before too long, a hungover Codger meets John, a bellhop who is a super-fan; Rikki Spectre, a punk rocker; and Marcus, a Viet Nam veteran turned bodyguard for rock stars. The four struggle to stay alive as they are stalked by an incomprehensible shape-shifting monster, one with a deeper connection to Codger than he cares to admit.
An Augmented Fourth is a short book, barely 200 pages, all delivered in Codger’s inimitable first-person narrative style. His stream of consciousness ranges from the horrifying present to the pinnacle days of the band, and to the genesis of his eerie, compelling lyrics, which he does not want to admit even to himself.
McMillen packs a lot into this low page count. There is the weird hotel itself; the shifting dynamic of the four survivors as they try to decide who they can trust; the intrigue of the grotesque and somehow beautiful monster and its minions, and a lot of talk about music and sound as a unifying force across dimensions, especially the augmented fourth itself, which is sometimes called the Devil’s Chord.
An Augmented Fourth gets more suspense mileage out of a hotel kitchen than maybe any horror story I remember reading or seeing.
The story moves right along, but McMillen has time to let Codger reflect on the breakup of his band and how that felt; his fear that Rikki will succeed him and that punk will kill heavy metal. This is not extraneous information; it is all about music, and this book is all about music, from the dark walk-in refrigerator to the strange “music room” at the top of the hotel; from Marcus’s guilt over the war to the frightening cult John was raised in; from the David Bowie nod to the monsters in the snow, it’s all rock and roll.
The final scene is open to interpretation; since the book has a series label (A NOVEL OF THE LORD OF LOW END) I interpreted it one way. The ending itself, that final scene, is a triumph, a perfect melding of eldritch horror with heavy metal. An Augmented Fourth was snarky, creepy, original and suspenseful. I enjoyed it.
I find it funny that so many chords, including the augmented fourth, are called the devil’s chord. (But I’ve also heard that the devil is an excellent fiddle-player.)
Yes, I’ve heard that too.
I guess any music that seems discordant to the listeners is “the devil’s music,” right?