Here at FanLit we’re working together to get all the Locus Award finalists reviewed. I’m not a fan of horror, but when I learned that Grady Hendrix’s horror novel We Sold Our Souls (2018) was about a woman who used to be the lead guitarist for a metal band, I knew this novel was for me. Hard rock and metal are my favorite music genres, I love to attend live shows, and I have often fantasized that being a guitarist for a metal band could have been an alternative career path if my mom had allowed me to take guitar instead of piano lessons. So, I was ready to love We Sold Our Souls.
The story starts by introducing a teenage Kris Pulaski in the late 1980s as she discovers metal and hard rock music and begins learning to play electric guitar in her bedroom. I could totally relate to Kris and her friend Terry (a singer) as they discovered the metal bands they loved and wanted to emulate, and with Kris as she struggled to remember her finger placements for chords, had trouble coordinating her two hands, and thought she’d never get through a famous guitar riff at normal speed. (I have experienced all of this though, unlike Kris, I did not get much better on guitar.)
Fast forward three decades and Kris is washed up, working as a receptionist in a run-down rural Best Western where she has to deal with gross things like customers peeing on the floor in the middle of the night. Kris did achieve her goal of becoming an excellent metal guitarist and her band Dürt Würk, with Terry as lead vocalist, was about to break out when something went horribly wrong on “Signing Day.” Kris and the other musicians, who had been drinking and smoking pot, don’t remember exactly what happened, but it ended with a bad contract and a car accident that crippled one of the members. While Terry somehow managed to break through and become a rockstar playing under his new band name, “Koffin,” the other members were left desolate and legally restricted from playing their own music, including the superb album called Troglodyte that Kris wrote.
Kris has never forgiven Terry, who is now very rich and very famous while she is in a dead-end job in a dead-end town. When she decides to reconnect with her former bandmates, she discovers that something even more sinister than simple greed is going on. Terry may have not only sold them out, but may have actually sold their souls. Kris’s quest to confront Terry and uncover the truth will be the most dangerous thing she’s ever done.
The metal theme of We Sold Our Souls is a clever and appropriate backdrop for a story about selling souls since (a) it involves the soul-sucking music industry and (b) it specifically involves metal, which has always been accused of being affiliated with death and devil worship and (c) it even more specifically involves consumerism and commercialism, especially in the context of metal sell-outs. Here’s the band trying to talk Terry and their new manager, Rob, out of commercializing their music:
“Hey, Terry!” He turned to her. Scotty shut up. “What do you mean Koffin’s going to get major air play? What are we changing? How’s it different from Dürt Würk?”
“We missed out on Grunge because we weren’t ready.” Terry said. “We thought we were better than our audience. That’s not going to happen this time. Koffin’s Nu Metal.”
The loudest sound in the room was a candle flickering in the cold draft that whined beneath a window. Nu Metal was metal lite. The flavor of moment that was ushering hardcore acts to mainstream success at the cost of their dignity. Bands that had been growling were suddenly rapping. Basslines that had previously blasted now bounced with get-on-the-dance-floor funk. It was all about branding, fan outreach, accessibility, spray-on attitude. Moving crowds of white kids smoothly from the pit to your merch booth where they’d buy $20 Limp Bizkit beer cozies and $30 Korn bandanas.
“Nu Metal isn’t about anything,” Kris said. “Nu Metal kids are cul-de-sac cry babies with their baseball hats on backward. Every song is a little boy crying in his bedroom about how his girlfriend won’t make him a sandwich like his mommy used to do.”
“Can anyone really say what’s good or what’s bad?” Rob asked. “A band is a business and you have to think like businessmen. Nu Metal moves units.”
“If I wanted to go into business, I would have gotten a job.” Kris said.
“Fuck Nu Metal!” Scotty enunciated. “If I’m going to play metal I don’t want that whiny baby crap. I want fucking dragons and shit!”
If that excerpt doesn’t make you nod in understanding and appreciation, or at least make you smile, you probably won’t enjoy We Sold Our Souls as much as I did. As expected, I loved the metal theme and it was fun to accompany Kris on her journey of discovery and exploration of some of our favorite music. Grady Hendrix’s chapter titles are the names of metal/hard rock songs and albums (e.g., Holy Diver, Stay Hungry, Toxicity, Appetite for Destruction) and there are many references to favorite songs and bands and even specific beloved riffs such as the opening riff of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man. And, of course, the descriptions of the live shows are fun for anyone who enjoys going to rock concerts. I also loved Hendrix’s descriptions, especially of the music:
Heavy metal was their religion. It tore the happy face off the world. It told the truth. It kicked down doors.
We Sold Our Souls is a novel that, due to its subject matter, will appeal most to its target audience (headbangers), but as a horror novel it works well for any horror fan. It’s original, scary, paranoid, and occasionally grisly. Kris meets some frightening people and gets herself into several situations that seem insurmountable, but:
Metal never dies.
Metal never retreats.
Metal never surrenders.
I’d love to see We Sold Our Souls in film version. The hard rock soundtrack would be awesome!
The audio version of We Sold Our Souls, produced by Blackstone Audio, is narrated by Carol Monda. She’s got a low-pitched slightly gravelly voice that works perfectly for this content.