We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m not sure if author Grady Hendrix is a lifelong fan of heavy metal or if he’s just a very talented researcher, but WE SOLD OUR SOULS has a wonderfully authentic and cozy feeling to it, not unlike opening a storage box in your attic and finding your old denim jacket covered with band patches. Sure, the story takes Faust and runs it through the old 1980s “Satanic panic” fuzz pedal, and bands both famous and obscure are dutifully name-dropped, but the authenticity comes from something deeper.
What feels so authentic in the story is how well Hendrix captures the stubborn mindset of the unrepentant rebel. He is interested in populating his story with true believers whose rebellion was long ago squelched, folks who never had the payday or won the trophy, but sweat blood for the cause nonetheless. The characters that we get to identify with have reluctantly adapted to supporting roles in society after decades of futility. But even though they may have conceded that they weren’t going to take over the world, these characters still hold the music and the identity that went along with it as sacred. They still believe that there is magic in the music that saved their teenage lives and they are at their most alive when they are talking about the fantasy world created by themselves and their favorite bands through the song lyrics.
The story follows Kris Pulaski, the former lead guitarist of almost famous 1990s heavy metal band Dürt Würk, who is now the night manager at a Best Western. Kris lives in limbo made all the more painful by the success of the solo career of her former lead singer, Terry Hunt. However, a series of bizarre coincidences and violent deaths lead Kris to believe that the hellish lives of her and the rest of her bandmates have been orchestrated by Terry.
Thus starts a story that takes on the spirit of a Viking saga as filtered through a concept album by the group Saxon. The framework is tongue-in-cheek, and the concept is satirical, but there is reverence in how Hendrix portrays the emotional connection the characters have with the music and the sense memory that the songs hold for them. There is a religious fervor in the way the characters speak about the best bass players in the worst singers and the coolest album covers. Each conversation is like an incantation that revives the spirit of the old warrior inside each of these broken souls.
WE SOLD OUR SOULS has plenty of creepy characters, supernatural elements, and a touch of conspiracy to keep the story popping forward. Hendrix effectively mixes humor and horror without mocking his characters or the reader. I think he attains that because he has some skin in the game. There is a sensitivity to how Hendrix speaks of the somewhat silly Otherworld of heavy metal music. He phrases his observations like someone who intellectually realized how corny Ronnie James Dio might have been, but could care less because he unabashedly loved it. He picks bands like Manowar, a band so steeped in Norse mythology that they wore animal skins on stage, to be the flag bearers of the emotional core of his story, and names chapters after songs by King Diamond. These are specific choices that speak to a specific level of heavy metal fan, ones who were more “committed to the cause”, the true believers.
And, I think this is why the story works so well. It would be incredibly easy to mock and belittle these bands that sang songs about Dungeons & Dragons and their fans. Instead, Hendrix realizes that these are the people who surrendered completely to the magic and the imagination of the music. These are the kind of people who hold the torch long after the battle has been lost. These are the people who maintain youthful and childlike hope in the face of a hard world.
With WE SOLD OUR SOULS, Grady Hendrix does something that only people like singer/songwriter Warren Zevon and movie director Sam Peckinpah attempted. He wrote a Viking saga for the lost and the broken losers in the world that, in the end, is inspiring and heartfelt. Highly recommended.
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We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix