Saturday, February 25, 2012

Butler, Hellhound on My Trail (2011)

D.J. Butler, Hellhound on My Trail (Rock Band Fights Evil #1). Smashwords, 2011. Pp. 135. ISBN 978-1-4661-3254-2. $0.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Sometimes, just sometimes, a genuinely bumptious romp of a story comes along that makes you want to praise the gods of narrative for the ragingly camp, OTT genre of pulp fiction. Bursting with action, snappy one-liners, quirky characters and tantalising glimpses of the author’s own view of fantastic mythology, Hellhound on My Trail is a heady series of set-piece fight scenes, improbable adventures and, naturally, rock music.

They say the devil has the best tunes. Apparently the Fallen Angels can no longer appreciate music at all (something they were deprived of, being a Heavenly pastime, when they rebelled), but the collection of individuals comprising the titular rock band are all still literally hell-bent, but determined to stick two fingers yup at Old Scratch before they are doomed forever. What the devil does have, as the story emerges during the course of snatched conversation between fights, is a range of nasty pets and servants and quite possibly bigger problems, politically speaking, among his own demons and the angels. Having escaped from a heavenly prison, the devil left behind a part of his hoof (a sort of satanic toenail), and possession of this is of somewhat vital importance to the band. But there’s an angel on the loose, too, with designs of his own on the item...

Told from the point of view of Mike, an ordinary human (a ‘vanilla’ in Buffy-speak: a not unfair interjection since the story reads very like a high-octane, effects-laden episode of the Joss Whedon supernatural comedy-drama) and a session bassist, called in to play with ‘some band’ in New Mexico. But everything rather goes south when a portal to Hell opens in the middle of the set and a hellhound leaps out, followed shortly thereafter by a Baal (a very nasty fly-demon-thingy). Mike has his own problems: a violent past, a need for drink and suicidal tendencies due to being haunted by the bloodied spirit of his long-deceased brother. Now he’s got a small matter of join a bizarre group of evil ass-kicking musicians or most likely be eaten by a big bad nasty. Thankfully for the continuation of the story he opts for the former; his youthful miss-exploits standing him in good stead in handling a gun against infernal foes.

Mike is the newest member of the band, but not the strangest: there is a man who sold his soul to Satan to become the best rock musician in the world (without specifying which instrument he wanted to master; Satan has a sense of humour, after all); an ambiguously-gendered shape-shifting Fairy; a son of Hell; and a narcolepsy-cursed wizard. Obviously the first choice of squad for the fighting of evil. Since we meet the group with Mike, and this is the first episode (the entire story runs to ten short chapters and is the length of a novella), set-up, characters and tone are all new. Butler’s intention is not, I think, to produce some great artistic polemic on the state of society or of mankind’s moral health, but to whip up a froth of exciting action, far-fetched monsters and add a hefty sprinkling of varied mythologies. We have some Mexican Indian, Christian, Kabbalah, Apocryphal and downright inspired connecting of the dots. These are not a group on a mission to save the world, but to save their hides and try to keep out of trouble. In this instance, they are very believable characters; rarely does one have to save mankind, but often one might feel as if one is fighting one’s own corner. You get the impression, however, that trouble follows them pretty much consistently.

The whole show eases in with a raging battle in a dusty two-bit tin-roofed bar in the middle of nowhere, continues with a pitched battle in a ruined synagogue/temple and finishes out the back in an ancient pyramid structure in the desert: a situation not dissimilar to the pyramid-backed bar in From Dusk Till Dawn. The level of demon-splatter is about the same as that road movie, too, as are the pithy comments thrown back and forth between the combatants. It starts low-key: Mike, we are told, is awaiting the end of the gig to get drunk then take his gun and shoot himself. His guilt over his younger brother’s death years ago still overwhelms him. We don’t appreciate that Mike might have seriously spooky supernatural problems of his own until we also ‘see’ the ghost; a bloodied, furious spirit, spitting blood and rage at the brother it felt let it down in life. In comparison, as Mike’s thoughts tell us, facing a running battle with tangible demons actually seems the better option.

Once ramped into action, the narrative does not flag, nor however, does it become over-excited and wear itself out (and the reader’s patience) before the end of the adventure. Butler keeps a firm hand on the reins; springing his horses, as it were, but not letting them gallop in a mad rush and spoil the narrative’s momentum with an unbalanced, messy crescendo. Out come the adjectives and adverbs, certainly, scattered liberally over the action. But this latter is cleanly described; there’s colourful, but not excess, description here. The images are clear and graspable. For immediacy of content to reader, one is as much ricocheted around the narrative alongside the characters as they are in their beat-up van trying to outrun the forces of Hell. Although it is basically a series of set-piece action situations, Butler is wonderfully unapologetic about this. Undoubtedly, his intention is of a rollicking great time for the reader, but thanks perhaps to the use of verbal quips and having a ‘vanilla’ as the first person, reader’s way in, it is all grounded in a very understandable level of communication. As sheer entertainment, it’s a right royal bouncer: bursting with energy, likable characters, improbable nonsense and a whole can full of whup-arse.

Written with a cinematic eye for the wider picture, it is not a hard jump to imagining the events as written about unfolding on the screen of the mind. As I said above, this is not a story with any great ‘message’ to proclaim unless it is ‘walk softly and carry a big gun’. These are not Heroes on an Epic Quest. Like most of us; they are people just trying to stay alive, in this case, literally! It is all about machismo, unlikely heroes (the comedic value of this is always a winner if properly exploited, and thankfully Butler tweaks his characters, but leaves just enough hanging to keep interest going) and visceral, cathartic thrills and lots and lots of bubbly, liquefying, grizzly, giggling carnage. Truly, the pulpiest of fiction, without being self-parodying. I felt this was a genuine argument for the solid value of a good pulper, rather than as a sardonic ‘homage’. It is so caught up in its own story, it stands utterly alone in a bubble of entertainment on its own merits, and on that basis it has to be something that you might enjoy in order to, well, enjoy. If heavy action, mythic beasties, swearing and gun-toting are not your thing, you won’t find anything in here to please you. It does exactly what is says on the tin: a rock band that fights evil. Repeatedly.

One could argue the merits or otherwise of pulp fiction till the cows come home. Yes, it’s not any great shakes in the moral department; in fact it is a delightfully a-moral genre; its characters nearly always a mix of ambiguity with a large wodge of the down-and-dirty about them. The band members aren’t saints either; all have flaws and problems. And while there’s the old argument about believability of characters being based on their realism, I rather feel that pulp fiction should not be judged on the post-Stanislavski obsession with ‘truth’. Yes, pulp fiction characters are gnarly; most humans are gnarly. This doesn’t mean it’s a social commentary. Pulp fiction, rather, belongs to the ranks of old-fashioned melodrama; the overdone, the grand gesture, the technicolour sets and costumes. Yes, it might be hopelessly overblown compared to ‘real’ life, but there’s no question in anyone’s minds over what is being presented; and what is more overblown than supernatural actioneering? The splatter-gore sub-genre in horror is itself also a child of melodrama. By going overboard we see more clearly our ‘real life’ narratives for what they are; apologetically scrambling on the surface of what they crow over being ‘complex’ human ‘issues’. Pulp fiction reminds us we can have story for story’s sake, and that we can have fun.

Could the format become repetitive? The shoot-'em-up-a-few-times-per-tale format in this start of a series of such tales? I have started in on the next two stories, and I can report that, while they follow the basic format, there is sufficient difference within them to make each its own little bundle of joy. Plus, given enough time between readings, the answer can be given as a no. A favoured episodic TV serial can become repetitive, but still claims one’s affections because it does so with such charm (moderated, of course by its genre. Splattered entrails of the damned might not be everyone’s idea of ‘charming’). Charm in this instance is taken to mean to cast a spell of agreeability (at the very least) over the eyes of the beholder. This is what creates the fan. So with a breather between each story of a day or so to increase the expectation, treating the stories like a TV series aired weekly, I’m finding them to be a roistering series of punchy entertainments.

If they ever make this into a TV serial, it has hit written all over it. Butler very much has his finger on the pulse of reminiscent pop culture classicism (I shudder to use the hackneyed title of ‘retro’). Instead of long-drawn-out angsty reasoning; the milieu of shows and books in the horror/fantasy genre since the early 1990s (themselves victims to Stanislavski’s realism ghost), his characters get on and do, in the spirit of the more lovably awful 80’s serials. It is a marvellous throw-back with all the wit of more up-to-date ventures. Coming out as a series of e-books, it is in a more modern format than the pulp serial magazines of half a century ago, but follows their lead of ‘in next week’s instalment.’ However, I am still waiting (and hoping) for a real hum-dinger of a one-liner delivered dead-pan, 80's action-hero style after a particularly Big Bad is dispatched. There has to be one at some point!

The group is not utterly aimless; they do want a hold over Satan and to win back some un-damnation for themselves. Given the introduction of the characters piecemeal and the fact that the subsequent two tales are focused on other members of the band; their viewpoint, the troubles they are trying to get solved, it is probable that over time we will build up a bigger, richer picture of the whole. The main frame is one of physical action; the tapestry itself on the frame will come from separate, interlocking threads as the characters mould and change one another. Apart from which, they have that piece of diabolic ungula to use, so there should be a build-up towards that at the very least!

This is a solid piece of writing. The author himself is obviously a well-read and literate man; it takes a lot of intelligence to write so deftly and believably about religious mysticism; a musician and someone with a strong background in law. His confidence in his work is clear; it is the confidence that one can pick up from another and make one confident in them. I would love to see this go more mainstream, but it is niched by its content and genre. Certainly I am very pleased that there is more on the way; that we will learn more, and see more action from Jim, Twitch, Eddie, Adrian and Mike.

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