Tales from the cryptic

“When I think of the 1980s, when I think of skinny ties and big hair, when I think of many, many sweatbands and teal pants with white drawstrings, I think of Queen.”

So writes Daniel Nester, author and diehard fan, in his new book God Save My Queen II: The Show Must Go On (Soft Skull, 2004).

As the “II” indicates, this isn’t Nester’s first exploration of the subject at hand. The writer, in this poetic account, is revisiting his lifelong obsession with the flamboyant, operatic British rock group fronted by the late Freddie Mercury.

Maybe it’s weird to fixate — especially postmortem — on a band. But when that fixation takes the form of a novel, obsession has the chance become art.

“Is all fandom vampiric?”

Derek McCormack has raised the question with his The Haunted Hillbilly (Soft Skull, 2004), the fictionalized literary comic of the life and death of Hank Williams, Sr. In the story, the country-music icon is made — and subsequently ruined — by Nudie, the Carnival Couturier, who is also a vampire. A gay vampire.

“I love Hank Williams; I own a ton of Hank Williams-abilia. I’ve got a Hank Williams belt buckle,” McCormack recently divulged by e-mail. “The Haunted Hillbilly is, in a weird way, an homage to Hank. I read a book by a man who’d been in Hank’s band. In it he revealed that Hank loved comic books. Especially ‘monster’ comics. Horror comics. So I decided to write a horror comic and put Hank in it.”

Only one problem with that. “I can’t draw,” admits McCormack. “I had to make it a comic-in-words.”

The book is perhaps most comic-like in the way it balances brevity with shock value. There’s a particularly disturbing rectal-thermometer scene, not to mention sequins fashioned from bone splinters. All in a day’s work for a demonic tailor, really.

“In the 1950s, horror comics were banned because they were considered macabre, grotesque, bestial,” McCormack reveals.

“I wanted to make my book all of these things.”

Five decades later, though, that challenge has become nearly impossible to meet.

“I tell you … it’s hard to shock and scare people now,” the author admits.

So, yes, there’s plenty of dark humor to be had in Hillbilly. But, believe it or not, the book also asks some serious questions about the repercussions of pop idolatry.

“The heart of the story is a Svengali situation — a Colonel Tom Parker situation,” the author explains. “Hank gets used and abused by a nefarious manager. Nudie vampirizes Hank. Literally. Hank’s also used by the Opry, by his fans.

“By using the names of real people, I was raising questions about fiction: Is writing a vampiric act? Is all fandom vampiric?”

The Album That Saved My Life

While McCormack turned reality on its head, fictionalizing a real icon, Nester penned his book as an unabashed memoir, organized in brief bursts of prose with each chapter representing an album and each page a song.

Then there’s Joe Meno, whose novel Hairstyles of the Damned (Akashic, 2004) is a purely fictitious homage to the ghastly maelstrom of our teenage years.

“Just because you have blue hair and f••ked-up clothes doesn’t mean you’re better than everyone else,” main character Brian points out. “Because you know what? You’re just conforming to someone else’s code … you’re like anti-snobs. But you’re just as mean as the preppy kids. You’re all just f••king lame.”

Hairstyles is an unapologetic look at those last years of high school, told in a language that painfully brings it all back. Meno’s characters, living in Chicago in the early ’90s, question race issues, race to lose their respective virginities, and idolize their favorite punk bands.

“The Album That Saved My Life was Walk Among Us by the Misfits,” Brian discloses. “It was thirteen amazing songs with B-movie horror titles that seemed to howl about the very weird disintegration of my own life.”

There’s something universal about the idea of being delivered by an album, by an icon. Which is the premise of Queen, too — although in Nester’s book, there’s less hope of actual salvation.

Under the heading “Living on My Own,” the author writes: “I [met] an older man at a bar who had actually seen Queen play live in concert. I started asking my usual questions. What songs did they play? Who opened? What was Freddie wearing? I went to buy him a drink.

“When I got back to my seat, he was gone.”

(Not So) Happily Ever After

These aren’t comfortable books. The heroes are less-than-heroic. They take painful falls.

Brian, the 11th-grade punk-rocker, gets dumped by his girlfriend and socked in the face. Freddie Mercury dies, famously, of AIDS. And Hank — no surprises here — meets his demise in the back seat of a Cadillac, before he even turns 30. Sure, art imitates life — but it’s how the three authors craft the inevitable nosedives that’s so intriguing.

“A lot of writers publish thinly veiled accounts of real events. They change the characters’ names and call it fiction,” McCormack muses.

“I did the opposite. I used the names of real people in a narrative that’s over-the-top and unbelievable.”

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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