Dead Trees: The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin

Many look back to the Splatterpunk days of Skipp, Spector, and Schow for the birth of heavy metal horror. And, certainly, The Scream and The Kill Riff were extraordinary examples of groundbreaking, rock and roll horror of the time. But they were not the first.

My social media feeds are filled with talk about Game of Thrones. The beloved show has finally ended, and the last episode was hotly controversial. George R.R. Martin is the most popular fantasy writer since J.R.R. Tolkien, but once upon a time Martin was poised to be a horror writer.

Funny how Martin and Tolkien both have R.R. in their names. I just realized that.

George R.R. Martin began his career writing science fiction, and he was one of the most promising voices of his generation.  Martin’s fiction had already taken some dark turns by the time his first full-blown horror novel surfaced. For my money, Martin’s Sandkings was the best short science fiction/horror hybrid since John W. Campbell, Jr’s Who Goes There?

Martin exploded on the horror scene in 1982 with Fevre Dream, a long historical horror novel set in the steamboat era. It’s a brilliant, sweeping novel that ranks with the best work of Robert McCammon. It was the beginning of what should have been a long, dark career.

The following year saw the publication of The Armageddon Rag. While I had enjoyed several of Martin’s shorter works, Armageddon was the first novel of his that I read. I thought The Armageddon Rag was as good as, if not better than, the other big league horror books of its time.

The Armageddon Rag features a character named Sandy Blair. Blair is an ex-hippy novelist. His radical days are long behind him, and while his books receive general acclaim, sales have faltered. Stalled on page thirty-seven of his work-in-progress, Blair is stuck. Stuck in his novel, stuck in a dying relationship, and stuck with memories of a more vital time of his life.

When a sleazeball music promoter is murdered in a particularly grisly manner, Sandy Blair’s former boss calls him up. Blair had written for an underground magazine that covered the counterculture in the 1960s. Now it covers fashion and trends of the consumer-laden 1980s. The publisher wishes Blair to do a piece about the murder, which is linked to a disbanded proto metal group called Nazgûl.

Searching for the connection between the murder and Nazgûl, Blair embarks on a journey through not only a landscape of fear and paranoia, but also of ghosts of his own past. His past as well as the gasping remnants of the revolution he and so many others desperately believed in back in the sixties.

Blair encounters old college friends on his trip: A woman who provided warmth and hope to the group of friends, but now cannot find love of her own.; a prankster-turned-professor who hides behind cynical jokes; one who was the most radical of them all, and now is a real estate yuppie embracing the excesses of the eighties; a flower power girl hiding from the present in the sad remains of a commune; and a tragic soul dominated by his he-man author father.

They’ve all lost their passion and their determination. Not only these individuals, but an entire generation that once believed they would change the world and fix all the hate and corruption in it.

As Blair investigates the murder he finds himself a pawn in a conspiracy to bring back the Nazgûl. A reunion that will culminate in a huge concert that will bring forth the revolution and set things right again. Or will it bring about hell on earth?

There are supernatural elements in The Armageddon Rag, but they are mild. The ghosts in this book derive from violent memories of the 1968 Democratic Convention. From protests and sit-ins. Of uncaring cops and soldiers to plaguing questions about what went wrong with it all. How so much optimism, conviction, and determination dissolved into apathy and madness.

I love The Armageddon Rag, and I just finished reading it for the fourth time. My roots are in the hippie culture, and I sometimes need to get back in touch with them. These days I walk a political tightrope and I often need a catalyst like The Armageddon Rag to keep me from tottering too far in one direction.

It’s not a perfect book. The hippie-dippie slang talk makes me cringe at times, and I find it a bit incongruous that the peace and love movement was typified by a Black Sabbath-type doom metal band. The middle parts of the book are deeply introspective and might be too slow for some horror readers. These small protests aside, The Armageddon Rag is a beautifully written novel that serves as an elegy for the lost dreams of an iconic generation. It also works as a cautionary tale of how zealotry, no matter how well-intended, can turn into hate and evil. Facebook activists take note.

George R.R. Martin could have, should have, become one of our best and most-beloved horror writers, but The Armageddon Rag didn’t sell, and by his own admission the book almost ruined his career. He had to change tactics, and he did so to great success. Maybe it’s time to change gears again and come home to horror. After Game of Thrones, anything he writes will sell. Real fans like me will welcome him back with open arms.

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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