Hellbent for metal and hard-up for mercy, We Sold Our Souls follows an aging, has-been musician as she attempts to win back her dignity, and soul, from the bandmate that sold her out. Drenched in conspiracy paranoia, Grady Hendrix’s dark fantasy plunges under the surface of music, pop culture, and commercialism, and discovers something sinister and ravenous beneath.
Souls drags guitarist Kris Pulaski – and the reader – through hurt, humiliation, and the kind of grime that doesn’t wash off. But this rock ’n roll journey riffs agony into insight, despair into transcendence, clawing to liberate hope from the jaws of the beast.
Reading the first chapter or so of We Sold Our Souls, you can be forgiven for thinking you’re about to lean into something a bit absurdist, a tale darkly askew. I was reminded of Warren Ellis’s Crooked Little Vein and its particular brand of Americana-gone-batshit-bizarre, but with the thematic overlay of heavy metal. And, as a fan of Vein and old school metal (and general weirdness), I was here for it.
But Grady Hendrix’s novel took me by surprise, quickly grounding itself with a fierce, serious tone. This is a story about being driven into the dirt by a friend, by an industry, by life. About the cycle of self-loathing and withering anger experienced when your dreams are swallowed whole, leaving you to survive only on grit and sorrow. About the faceless things taking names and making deals, devouring your immortal soul for fame and profit.
It’s about some heavy shit, is what I’m saying. And, yes, it’s about heavy metal.
Forty-something former musician Kris Pulaski works at a crappy hotel, tormented by anonymity, debt, and garbage-fire customers. She’s a broken down mess with no sense of self-worth, just biting her tongue, staying medicated, taking her daily dose of humiliation and mumbling her gratitude. Clocking out after fresh rounds of disrespect and the news that she’s losing her house, she discovers insult to grievous injury: billboards touting the farewell tour of nu-metal band Koffin and its notorious frontman, Terry Hunt. Terry, who was Kris’s original musical partner, the singer in her band, her friend and her betrayer. Terry, blazing into retirement on a road paved with money and adulation, while Kris rots in obscurity.
It’s all enough to finally force her to dig out her old six-string, spill that anger into distortion-fuzzed power chords, and get off her ass. Somebody needs to hold Terry accountable for things he did a decade before, selling out Kris and the other three members of Dürt Würk, the band he cut down in its prime, killing their careers. Kris sets out to put the group back together, at least in spirit, to rally the old troops and seek restitution. Problem is, they mostly all hate her.
After being forced to sign away the life of Dürt Würk, things went sideways in a bad, bad way, with Kris at the wheel. So she seeks her rhythm guitarist, her truest absentee friend. But while he’s ready to talk, the things he has to say sound like a paranoid depressive spiraling into madness. The gun in his hand doesn’t help the situation, either.
It’s at this point that We Sold Our Souls takes shape, where we see beyond the directionless, angry loserdom ensnaring Kris Pulaski. The conspiracy delusions of her former axe-man prove true, quickly and catastrophically. There’s more to their shared history than unethical contracts and dubious decisions, and it’s an anchor that sinks Kris into panic and despair. Connecting the dots between old friends and murky memories of ill-fated deeds, she travels across country, trying to stay ahead of the law, disaster, and the mysterious forces of Black Iron Mountain.
We Sold Our Souls is a dark fantasy novel, but it’s far less overt about those fantastical elements than you might expect. Kris discovers that the architects of her downfall aren’t precisely human, and that the last album she wrote with Dürt Würk — Troglodyte — contains a seemingly mystical prescience about her dilemmas. But the novel’s horror foundation really underscores its off-kilter, paranoid suspense. Souls at turns made me deeply claustrophobic and uncomfortable, filling with me seething anger and burning shame for its protagonist. This is a dungeon crawl into smothering darkness, and it’s not an easy one.
Thankfully, Kris Pulaski is a heroine worthy of sharing the ride with. Broken but still standing, friendless but still fighting, Kris is the soul of heavy metal distilled into a person. She makes a great POV character because she has no illusions about her value or flaws. She’s a woman with nothing left to lose who somehow keeps on losing, yet doesn’t give up. That’s grit, that’s Metal, man, and that makes her very dangerous for Terry Hunt and his shadow-spawn puppet masters from Black Iron Mountain.
Maybe it’s the past-my-prime musician in me, but Kris got under my skin in all the right ways, jagged and panicked as she might be. Her pain felt real, her drive felt earned, and I rooted hard for her as Souls blazed towards its stadium-sized climax. This is a lower-than-underdog tale that never goes quite where you expect, with sudden and dizzying turns that leave both Kris and the readers’ heads spinning. But those twists satisfyingly straighten as Kris rides the lightening to the center of the storm — Terry Hunt and Koffin’s farewell concert.
The novel contains one other POV character, a waitress and music fan named Melanie, whose life is completely unconnected yet collision-bound with Kris’s. She offers a counterpoint — an outsider’s perspective — of blue-collar optimism to the jaded insider-outcast guitarist. Her side of the story fleshes out Hendrix’s world, free of the overt conspiracies even as more mundane ones hide in plain view. Unfortunately, the Melanie character offers the novels one structural flaw. When she and Kris meet, their shared paragraphs blend into a third-person omniscient viewpoint that sees into both of their heads at once. It’s jarring and confusing after 200-plus pages without any such convolution. Thankfully, those overlaps happen rarely and briefly, but they are visible enough in their clumsiness to be worth noting.
Souls never lacks for momentum, but its doom and gloom can be difficult to withstand at times. Dark fantasy readers will be ready to shoulder the burden, but intrigued visitors from outside the genre might find themselves in for a challenge. At times, I was reminded of the dark grind of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Black House, and the emotional brutality of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 (though there are more obvious thematic parallels to his Heart Shaped Box).
This isn’t a fun read. It’s scary, disorienting, and often exhilarating, and you will be justly rewarded for staying a loyal bandmate to Kris Pulaski.
This is an excellent bit of work, showcasing Grady Hendrix’s considerable writing craft. I can’t say that I like being in those dark places enough to love this reading experience, but I certainly love the character of Kris, who felt like a full and real person to me.
As a former band-guy with a pile of neglected guitars and a nostalgic fondness for metal-of-decades-past, hell yes I am. And I love dark fantasy and horror, even if they are genres I visit carefully for my own mental health.
I did! I spotted this one at my local Books-a-Million and snatched it up. I dig the stark cover design, the black page edges, and the under-the-jacket details.
I definitely will, both for aesthetic appeal, and to loan out to friends. I can also see myself re-reading this one sometime off in the future. The layers of craft in this book will likely reward repeat reads.
Adron Buske is a speaker, writer, interviewer, and multimedia storyteller. A media professional since 2001, he spent 11 years in the radio industry as a digital creative director and, later, a corporate executive. He has worn many creative hats: video production director, graphic designer, web developer, fashion photographer, performing musician, gaming festival organizer, comic creator, and voice talent. He is a frequent speaker at pop culture conventions around the country, presenting seminars about entertainment careers, the craft of storytelling, and ways to power-up your life using concepts from gaming and fiction.
The Fictitious Podcast, hosted & produced by Adron Buske, delves into the craft of Science Fiction and Fantasy storytelling through interviews with authors and other writers, creators, and publishing professionals.