If you want to – and I don’t know why you’d want to, but if you want to – read one of the more purely ’90s horror anthologies, I’d say editor Jeff Gelb’s Shock Rock is a pretty good bet. In his introduction, Gelb plainly lays out the facts, which are that for a good long while before 1992, performers of rock and roll, which is a type of music, had dabbled in horror imagery both in their lyrics and their stage persona, from “Monster Mash” up to Alice Cooper, etc., so why had horror literature so rarely returned the favor? I freely admit that my perspective on this is very narrow, but I’m surprised to hear that horror literature was, at the time, so reticent. I remember finding out that Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat from 1985 featured the title character becoming a rock star and thinking that was pretty stupid, and then hearing about another book called Vampire Junction by S. P. Somtow in which basically the same thing happens. Once you had Shock Rock to the mix, that’s three whole books! What more does Jeff Gelb want!?
(One very quick and, while still staying within the subject of horror anthologies, completely off topic aside: the rhyming title Shock Rock reminds me of another very ‘90s-seeming anthology called Scare Care, which was made up, I gather, of stories that featured children in peril or being abused in some way. The proceeds of that book went to charity, and while this wouldn’t have helped those charities out any, I now regret not buying the copy of Scare Care I found in a used bookstore about a year ago. Might have been interesting…)
Plus you must never forget about Stephen King (who has a story in Shock Rock). King has always had a habit of infusing his books with pop culture business, to the point now that a reference in Cell to the then new film March of the Penguins seems to exist as proof that King finished the book just the week before, and right at the top of the list of King’s cultural touchstones and references is rock music. You could make a case that Christine, with its constant references to and quoting of classic ‘50s songs is a rock/horror novel, and a rock musician was one of the heroes in The Stand. Plus more. It just seemed to me that rock and horror were pretty regularly paired off, simply because a lot, if not all, of the horror writers from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s grew up on rock, and as Jeff Gelb notes, there’s the mutual transgressive qualities of the two genres that should theoretically make them best fellows forevermore. Okay, but to be frank I always found this sort of thing off-putting, at least when I encountered it outside of King, who has a way with such things. Generally, though, the merging of rock and horror, in literature, comes off as a naked attempt to look cool. It’s not concerned with writing anything good, it’s just an attempt to publicly flaunt one’s outsider-hood and bask in what one naturally assumes is one’s striking individuality. This makes me sound pretty square, I realize, but don’t you worry, I like rock music just fine. Just fine, indeed! To help illustrate my point, let me get into today's stories.
So: John Shirley. His story in Shock Rock is called “Flaming Telepaths”, and I gravitated towards it because I’ve read Shirley before, and I do not like him. When choosing stories for this series, it’s hard to not find yourself stacking the deck either in favor of or against a particular anthology, because either I choose writers I’ve never read, which I do, or I choose writers I like, or writers I don’t like. That’s pretty plain as day, and Shirley is a writer I don’t like. Well, in truth, one of his stories, “You Hear What Buddy and Ray Did?”, has a terrific title, and isn’t all that bad, though the desperate need to shock pretty badly cuts into any actual shock. But his novel Wetbones is just terrible – considered something of a classic, which is depressing, it’s a tedious slog where one guy finds himself up against the ultimate evil or whatever. The main thing I remember about it now is that about 2/3rds or more of the way in Shirley introduces a homeless ex-‘60s radical who eventually goes on to martyr himself in a cloying plea to the reader’s black and shriveled heart, and I guess to shed light on the shameful way this country treats its finest hippies. Wetbones is, for me, the kind of book you hold up as an example of everything that is wrong with horror, particularly in the 1990s, but some weird loophole let it scoot on through to respectability, and Shirley along with it.
And I’ll end the suspense right now and say that “Flaming Telepaths” is wretched. It is not just stupid, it is not just the stupidest story ever…it is perhaps the stupidest story possible. I don’t quite know where to begin. Well, I’ll begin with what “Flaming Telepaths” is trying to be, which is a confrontation between rock music, as represented by some sort of utopian hardcore metal club and its denizens, and the televangelical push against rock and its Satanism and drugs and fornicating ways that got a lot of press Back Then, and which history has shown us didn’t matter for shit. Okay, that may have been an ultimately meaningless foofaraw, but I'll grant that for people of John Shirley's tastes must have been hugely annoyed by it all, by being stupidly demonized and all that. So coming from the context of the times, fine. But the self-aggrandizement of this hard rock scene as presented in "Flaming Telepaths" is too much. Simply too much. Look, here's a passage about our protagonist, or our stand-in observer, an ex-drinker and drug user who earns his bread by writing music reviews and "performance art crit"(!):
He wasn't a musician himself; he didn't like being onstage. He didn't like anyone to look at him that closely. "The shamans of the rock stage act out our psychodramas for us, exorcising our demons," he'd written the previous week.
This writing sample is used by a female character named, due to individualism, Velcro Cunt, to label Spaced "too intellectual," and quite honestly that's about when I tuned out of "Flaming Telepaths", and it comes about a page in If that's "too intellectual" then "Music good" must be at the next level down, which would be "just intellectual enough." I kept going, though, and as a result I read this:
More than once Spaced had found himself wondering how he could thrive so in this hot, dark, and claustrophobic miasma of posturing. ANd he'd answered himself: It was like asking how you could enjoy being in a woman's vagina, a place that was also hot, moist, and swollen with self-declaration.
Holy shit, dude. I mean, do I even need to comment? Do you start to get an idea? If not, how about later, when the band featured in the club where the story takes place, the Iron-Ons, begin to perform as a kind of counter to the Reverend Carlyle, the televangelist who has invaded the club with cameras in order to film what at first appears to be a simple belly-of-the-beast style show for his at-home parishioners. Here's what the Iron-Ons (super hardcore name there, by the way) are like:
The tune steamrolled right into another, even fiercer rocker, the lead singer shrieking that he was going to butt-fuck each and every member of Congress personally because that's what they'd been doing to the rest of the country for years...
In fairness, the vast majority of protest rock can be boiled down to exactly that, so maybe in this case Shirley is merely functioning as a clear-eyed journalist, but as "Flaming Telepaths" also contains passages like this:
"Hi, Cunt!" he said, jogging up from the dance floor, reeking of sweat and various smokes. "Got a butt?" He was completely oblivious to the annoying congruity in his use of "cunt" and "butt."
...I'm not so sure that Shirley doesn't simply like writing words like "fuck" and "butt".
Oh, the story? Yeah, it's, so, what happens is Rev. Carlyle has some sort of powers as do his minions and he makes people burst into flames, including the lead singer of the Iron-Ons (oh no!), but there's this guy named Benny who's a hardcore rocker who wore a "sleevless black leather jacket" but also "had a master of fine arts from Stanford" (take that, squares!) ends up being an angel and he destroys all the demons and shit (he also tells the dying Iron-Ons guy that "Jimi" is going to welcome him in heaven). But the real highlight, the moment of shimmering brilliance, comes when Benny finds one of the cameras Carlyle brought in and starts talking into it, to us, the home viewer:
"The Devil -- the true Devil -- hates rock 'n' roll. Strives to suppress it through his false prophets. The Devil hates rock 'n' roll because the Devil hates freedom, and freedom of expression and anything that unifies men. And God...God loves music. All kinds of music. God thinks with music. And when God chooses..." He paused -- then grinned, and shouted: "God knows how to rock 'n' roll!"
This unquestionably ingenious moment made me picture all the characters, the non-burned-to-death ones, high-fiving each other, shredding some hot licks (that one actually happens), and playfully slumping against the wall next to, say, Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe and Firestar from Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends while Slimer from The Real Ghostbusters circles merrily overhead. They all joined forces, and they did it!!!
So this all made me rather despondent. I did read another story, "Weird Gig" by Ray Garton, but it wasn't much good either. It's about a band, once huge, now fading, whose manager tries to pitch them on the titular "weird gig" through expository dialogue along the lines of "Sure I remember you guys sold out stadiums, but then the other band member, your friend, died of a drug overdose. You know, you were there" -- like that. It's not entirely uninteresting, because the weird gig is almost kind of creepy, until it all gets explained, but that explanation actually renders "Weird Gig" a curious counterpoint to "Flaming Telepaths", at least as far as idolizing rock music and the world that closely surrounds it. But "Weird Gig" had a better idea than "Flaming Telepaths". In that better idea designation I include the sort of delightfully old school ghost story ending. The execution is almost entirely lacking, however, and even then it trumps "Flaming Telepaths." It was all just unpleasant to read, and it made me sad in my heart.