Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel is an excellent tale of a 1950s army band recruited to track down a mysterious musical weapon (and its equally mysterious owner) in the South African desert. The title could refer to vinyl records or the spin of reel-to-reel recording decks. It might refer to the tires of an army jeep stuck in the sand, or the ever-turning wheel of history. Or it could refer to life itself, the way we circle back, again and again, to the things that hurt and haunt us. Malerman leaves it open, and Black Mad Wheel is all the better for the ambiguity.
Protagonist Phillip Tonka should have listened to his mother when the army requested his band, The Danes, travel to South Africa to investigate a strange and potentially dangerous sound.
“Mystery,” she says, “is bad enough on its own. But mystery with the army?” She shakes her head. “Means they’re hiding something.”
Indeed, Black Mad Wheel is packed with twists, turns, betrayals, and a few moments of hold-your-breath suspense. This novel is not only set in the 1950s, it has a post-war mood that reverberates throughout the story, including a budding romance between Phillip and his nurse, Ellen.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I suppose we’re all a bit wounded.”
They stare at one another, connected by the hospital and more.
Perhaps the most interesting twist Malerman presents is that the sound is not a weapon, but the opposite, something capable of stopping the endless cycle of war.
While the ending hits a few sour notes, this book is 95% awesome. Malerman strikes a memorable chord in the pantheon of musical fiction with Black Mad Wheel.
I love rock n’ roll horror. It’s an under appreciated subgenre rich with untold stories. There isn’t enough quality musical fiction out there. Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box is an obvious exception. Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat fronted a rock band in The Queen of the Damned, as did the pre-emo bloodsucker of S.P. Somtow’s Vampire Junction. Stephen King, Peter Straub and Gary Braunbeck have all made excellent contributions to musical literature, and don’t forget Jeff Gelb’s Shock Rock anthologies.
Douglas Wynne loves rock ‘n roll horror too, and you can feel his passion for music drip off every page of The Devil of Echo Lake. The novel has a retro grunge feel (there are no cell phones and the musicians still record on analog tape) and uses all the rock ‘n roll archetypes — the wicked producer, the brooding rock star, and the overtly sexual groupie.
The story focuses on rookie engineer Jake, who finds himself caught between sinister producer Trevor Rail and tortured artist Billy Moon. Toss in a haunted converted church/recording studio, a couple of savage murders, and a showdown with the Great God Pan, and Jake’s got his hands full. It’s no wonder his love life is falling apart.
Fortunately, love conquers all — with assistance from a ghost and a satyr — and The Devil of Echo Lake ends in perfect harmony, with Jake learning a valuable lesson about the music business.
“You may find that records are kind of like hot dogs. You enjoy them a lot more before you know how they’re made.”
Douglas Wynne has a great sense of character and pacing. Jake is a sympathetic hero, and Billy and Trevor (even grizzled engineer Eddie) are larger-than-life figures that avoid becoming stereotypes. The Devil of Echo Lake hums along nicely, building a nice rhythm of action sequences and suspenseful passages. Wynne’s got style — it’s no surprise The Devil of Echo Lake was named JournalStone Publishing’s First Place Horror Fiction for 2012. The honor is well earned, and I look forward to more musical explorations from Mr. Wynne.
(Unabashed Plug: My own contribution to musical fiction is a novel called Hangman’s Jam. H.P. Lovecraft meets Motley Crue!)
But first, let me tell you what blows about my debut novel.
Hangman’s Jam is a rock ‘n roll horror novel about a haunted song that gets passed along through the musical generations. It winds up in the hands of a New Jersey bar band, which rides it to worldwide success…and global destruction.
Hangman’s Jam may not be my greatest creative achievement, but it’s certainly one I’ve put a lot of time and effort into.
But it could’ve been better.
Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind
Since my novel is about music, specifically rock music, I incorporated many classic rock lyrics into the text. This gave the work an extra credibility, like my haunted song had always existed alongside these classic tunes. It showcased how music and life are interwoven. I packed my novel with all sorts of musical quotes, some subtle, some overt. I polished that draft until it was pretty good. I polished it until it sang.
Then I began researching the legal ramifications of using song lyrics in literary works, and quickly realized I was in deep doo-doo.
You can use song titles as much as you like, but using lyrics without permission and compensation is a big legal no-no.
A friend of mine was writing a follow-up to her bestselling cat story (Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper). Her cat is named Prudence, and one of her characters invites the stray tabby to “come out and play.”
What Cooper found when she ran her manuscript by the Beatles estate was it would cost a couple thousand dollars to use two lines from “Dear Prudence,” plus three cents per copy sold in perpetuity.
I’m sure Paul and Ringo don’t need to make a few hundred dollars off a struggling writer. But evidently their lawyers think otherwise, as do the majority of music publishing attorneys.
Lawyers Can’t Dance
As a songwriter, I understand the reason for this legal protection. You can’t have people stealing your lyrics.
But all art builds on the art that came before it. Why can’t I use a piece of another artist’s creation to illustrate my own? Hip-hop producers do it all the time!
If I wrote a book called Attack Of The 50-Foot Steve Buscemi, Steve Buscemi could rightfully say I was using his name and likeness for financial gain. Still, somehow Being John Malkovichgot made. It’s possible, but in the case of my work—a novel that was liberally sprinkled with musical quotations—it wasn’t financially feasible to get all the rights and permissions I needed to write the book I wanted to write.
So I rewrote the novel, and took all the musical quotes out.
It irritates me. Why can’t one confused character say to another, “There will be an answer. Let it be”? Well, you might get away with it in a mystery or romance novel, but in the context of musical fiction it’s asking for legal trouble. As a result, my characters now say, “We’ll let the music speak for itself,” instead of, “We’ll let the music do the talkin'” for fear of being sued by Aerosmith’s attorneys.
The final published draft of Hangman’s Jam is still pretty strong. I hope you’ll check it out and see for yourself (you can find both print and digital editions on Amazon, Barnes&Noble.com, iTunes, etc.) Maybe if enough people buy it, I’ll have the means to publish a revised edition with the music put back in.