The idea that rock ‘n roll is the Devil’s music is as old as a Robert Johnson blues riff. It’s an idea that’s been mined by countless musicians and writers over the years, to varying degrees of success. Leave it to Grady Hendrix, acclaimed author/historian of ’70s and ’80s horror fiction, to breathe new life into one of horror’s most well-worn tropes.When we first meet her, Kris Pulaski is a young girl struggling to coax heavy metal licks out of a cheap guitar. The journey that follows is a familiar one: girl meets boy; boy and girl form band; band plays everything from dive bars to frat parties, building skill and a following along the way; band makes it to the brink of success; band collapses from the inside.
Except, that’s not quite what happened with Kris Pulaski’s band, Dürt Würk. Kris herself isn’t sure exactly what happened; there’s a hole in her memory that consumes several hours of what she calls Contract Night — the night which saw co-founder Terry Hunt present the band with contracts that transformed Dürt Würk into watered-down nü-metal while transforming its members into musicians-for-hire working for Terry instead of with Terry. All Kris knows for sure is that the night ended in a tragic accident, and that the legal nightmare that followed killed her music career for good.
Years later, working as a clerk in a rundown motel, Kris is struggling through life when she gets slapped in the face once again with the reality of Terry’s betrayal. Terry’s band (once her band, but no more), now called Koffin, has announced a series of farewell concerts, and Terry’s face — in the guise of his Koffin persona, The Blind King — is everywhere. Old feelings, long suppressed, begin to bubble to the surface, and Kris decides to take action, first by seeking out her old band mates to see if they can help her piece together the mystery of Contract Night.
The journey that ensues follows a ragged line from a Best Western on U.S.-22 all the way to Sin City itself. By the time Kris reaches Las Vegas, she’s traveled with a conspiracy theorist in a literal tinfoil hat; she’s spent time in a decadent celebrity rehab center called Well in the Woods; she’s dug her way out of a cave filled with bats; she’s been pursued by agents of The Blind King disguised as UPS drivers; she’s witnessed murders and a suicide; she’s lost her hope and regained her fire.
In We Sold Our Souls, Hendrix has concocted an adventurous road trip novel with heavy supernatural overtones. There are moments of levity balanced with scenes of pure, visceral horror — a tricky formula that Hendrix pulls off beautifully. The high point of the novel comes in Kris’s escape from Well in the Woods, which is easily the most claustrophobic, terrifying scene I’ve read this year. From that point the novel slides downhill toward the inevitable final showdown — a showdown that could have played out in the expected flashes of brimstone and demonic minions, and is all the more satisfying because it does not.
When you start We Sold Our Souls, make sure your calendar is free, because you’re not going to want to stop until you’re finished.