Monday, September 24, 2012

Grimwood, Axe (2012)

Terry Grimwood, Axe. Double Dragon Press, 2012. Pp. 296. ISBN 978-1-55405-965-3. $5.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

In the early years of the twentieth century, Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads and had his guitar retuned by the devil for rock music, or so they say. The deals have become a lot bloodier, and much for special-effects-laden since then. Building to a series of grisly, murderous climaxes, Axe is claiming that Hell really does still have, if not the best, then the most ear-splitting tunes.

Steve is one of life’s survivors, if not one of life’s high achievers. Dreams of becoming a rock star still cling tenaciously in his nearly-40-year-old soul. By day he works as a builder. Once a week he rehearses with his band of equally aging rockers. In between he is courting the woman of his dreams, the battered but still fighting, Lydia. When a friend gives him a case of old music to play, he discovers a strange, oddly addictive, yet discordant piece printed on old, yellowing paper. Working hard to master it, Steve unwittingly opens a doorway to another Place; a Place of pain and darkness and suffering. Worse even than My Chemical Romance on a really bad day. Then things start to get very dark; music that can kill, on-stage SFX that ILM would give their eye teeth for, a blood-thirsty guitar and people starting to disappear. The detective set onto the case will learn that this goes back to her youth, to the loss of her husband, to a grim rock and roll secret kept hushed up for years. A secret now re-opened that has to be sealed up tight before all Hell, literally, breaks lose.

Stories of rock ‘n’ roll invariably feature the old rockers; the old warriors of the touring circuit; jeans-wearing, long-haired and tattooed. In their hearts still beat the dreams of their youth. In fact, the music genre is known for its old stagers who still ‘rock on’ years later, recalling past glories, fantastic gigs and departed friends, who went young, in a blaze of glory. Rock is an odd thing; it is the music of youth, played mostly by the young, yet the forerunners, the previous generations of rockers, carry a certain gravitas for still being alive; possibly because rock is also the genre of excess, of the extreme. For a story set in a horrific frame, this excess works well as soundtrack, and as medium.

Yet the book offers hope, too; how rock can bind people together (Steve and Lydia), forge friendships that last even the worst falling-out (Steve and Mike), and how even the burned-out can make final peace and amends for past mistakes (Alan and Joe-Jack). And it refreshingly reveals that not all rockers are unwashed, anti-social Neanderthals, that they do care about family and friends. It is the high-flying success story who beats his wife. And it is the wealthy and most socially inclusive that are the most emotionally—and decency—deficit. Rock and roll is about the underdogs, and in here they are the most important characters. It is in unexciting Ipswich that the finale takes place, instead of the grand capital London. Steve is neat and humble with a warm, generous heart. Ex-rocker Joe-Jack runs a shop of second-hand goods, living in pokey accommodation above, but is instrumental in ending the evil. The alcoholic cop risks his life to confront something that terrified him into running away years ago. One cannot imagine such revelatory behaviours in Lydia’s parents or husband.

What must never be forgotten, however, is that rock and roll is the conduit by which youth never dies; by which the scars of learning in youth are carried on into adulthood. This will become very important.

Rock and roll: you just know there will be something demonic at some point; something that is not quite ‘right’. The connection between Hell and rock is a gimmick that rockers have exploited shamelessly over the years, until denim-clad skeletons riding Harleys have become widely recognised images, and skulls surrounded by roses is not shocking but artistic. Some oldsters now even have reality TV shows. But while it may appear occasionally institutionalised, rock and roll is still the music of youth: the rebel cry, the angry burst against ‘the system’ and social repression. Rock and roll: so often blamed as the purlieu of all ‘bad things’; the dangerous, the untamed. When rock and roll is attributed, expect liminal action; the outcast, the individual, all the while expressing virile, angry energy. If vampires, mummies, werewolves; any monster in fact, had a soundtrack, it would be rock and roll. It is a flexible and endlessly re-modifiable medium for creative endeavour: be it music or writing or film. It is about the fearless now and the grand, almost magisterial relics of the past.

Being so often aligned with the devil, Axe makes a unique contribution to this old trope, extending it into an existential meaning. The devil is not one thing, but all. On the one occasion we glimpse it in the narrative, in the shape of a “golden man”, its face is all faces, the mouth opening and stretching before Joe-Jack’s horrified eyes to encompass everything and then passing over, beyond, into. If Old Nick is the worldly tempter of the flesh, it makes sense that he should be all things that are physically possible, down to the blood, the bone, and have dominion over them if allowed to do so. But again, the devil has to be invited in. We have to allow for that aspect to rule our decisions. In this instance, it is by music dictated to willing recipients. Once played, the door is opened. Do not think this is the perfect rock piece, however; this is music as painful as it is amazing; music that can scarcely be called that, but which finds a natural home in the grinding, pounding of heavy rock.

Rock and roll is a place for legend and myth: Johnson was the first to die at 27; the fieriest talents having been taken at that age since. The ‘epic’ excesses of the rock and rollers; the riders, the groupies, the drugs, make for the stuff of legend, passed on from aficionado to aficionado. While all this could be seen in the social context of the 60s and 80s as a reaction to the changing social environment (in the 60s, the end of a social old world and in the 80s; facing up to the capitalist boom and the rapid rise of the very rich, the fall of the poor, and the struggle in between), yet rock and roll has been anti-establishment from the first; music not understood by one’s parents, music of youth, and the young are, by nature, selfish. It is in growing up that they mature into sharing creatures. Rock and roll, holding a promise of being young forever, suggests a lack of maturation; an infantile state of thinking.

The darkness that is opened by Steve’s music, and the portal which comes to reside in his guitar, holding him prisoner to its wants, is the Place. It upsets the natural order, “Death is just another form of life. There’s a balance […] The Place feeds [takes lives] but gives nothing back.” So it is evil because it upsets the natural order unto the spiritual dimension. It is evil because it acts like a greedy child; taking, not sharing. As a balance, there is a spiritual presence providing some help. Whether an angel or just a manifestation of the grand cosmic balance, it is not explained, but acts as an anti-Place agent. Good and evil are become order and chaos, balance and imbalance, so this is not simply a battle of good versus evil as separate and distinct moral stands. Indeed, there is a morality here, but not one that revels in ‘being bad.’ This is morality of the self and decisions made directly impacting on the common good. Where it stands within the self is partly explained by where the Place comes from.

Over and again Steve feels the Place coming up from within him. There are venereal, Cronenberg-esque sets of sensations, during which his guitar, the epicentre of the Place’s portal, becomes soft, flesh-like, into which he can sink his hands and feel it a part of him entirely. From within, he acknowledges that some inner portion of himself chimes with the Place. “The Place is the centre; it pulses with dark and powerful energies.” The Place is starting to sound downright Jungian; a sort of anti-collective consciousness, where all the darker, violent desires come from- or go to. The Place is the Id, and the horror manifested in the narrative is the Ego versus Id; the controllable versus the mostly unknowable, reflected in Lydia’s story: her suffering at the hands of a physically abusive husband is the Id-hell she escapes from. It is reflected, too in Maggie’s tale, when she reveals towards the end that she had been living quietly, restrainedly (with her Ego) for years because she had been promised power to come (the unleashing of her Id); which would come when the forces of Hell were opened.

There is a strong connection, too, to the sexual. That dark shore that Freud wrestled with, that Jung dropped into his Id and his mythologies; that place where human control is lost in animal need. The Place uses desire to attract its female prey; bring violence into sex, and domination of another by one of their most vulnerable areas they cannot control once stirred. Humans here are animals of need, repressing the selfish in order to operate on the social level. Once the selfish—the childish—is allowed out, it leads to destruction, because the selfish can be easily tempted and controlled.

Moreover, women are the weak link. Maria is the original tempted that begins the cycle, and Maggie is her inheritor. The detective Sue is bound by her desperation for a normal life, and at the last she all but fails to stop the darkness spreading herself, although she will help Steve to do so. It is through Lydia that the pattern changes, as she is more purely the victim of men. First, an abusive husband, then the increasingly erratic Steve, and finally the Place, manifested as masculine in Steve and his guitar. Women are not only the Eve of this morality play, weak, tractable, but they are humiliated, too; drawn to the darkness via sexual arousal, then dominated by its avatar (Steve). It is the better part of men that saves others; Alan’s motivating self-disgust, Joe-Jack’s love for Maggie and Steve’s intrinsic decency and gentleness that makes him turn that domination on himself to save Lydia. Rock and roll, though, is a masculine genre and always will be. Women may find empowerment through listening or playing it, but it is, through and through, celebration of the male. Perhaps, then, this is not sexual discrimination, but a genuine, specific strength redeeming its weaknesses. Women here are not the Hell-driven ones, but the victims and the saved of male actions.

Sue will find peace at last, losing some of her guilt. Lydia will walk away a stronger, better person. It is a trial by fire for all, no matter whose gender lay on the fuse.

So is Hell the place for the not-grown-up grown-up? Is childish behaviour Hellish and therefore punishable? Ironically, it is characters who act out of ‘adult,’ non-selfish interests who are pulled directly into it: Mike, worried for his friend; Alan, attempting to save his friend and end the evil; the prostitute, just trying to make a living; even eventually Steve, in self-sacrifice. Those serving the evil die in physically horrible ways, but do not feed the guitar; all of them tempted and fallen, via their selfishness, into destructive greed. The morality of the book is reversed. It is not the ‘bad’ who are drawn down for punishment. The guitar’s victims tend to be those with nobler intentions and purer motivations. Those who serve the Place feed, instead, like parasites off its power, but are denied the final subsuming. Are we to think that no one who is ‘good’ will be saved? Or is death instead not to be feared as fear feeds the imbalance? It is the child who does not know to fear death: the adult learns to fear its removing quality. So the adult, then, is eaten by the childish, the selfish, and it makes more sense that the adult characters are eaten by the Place. In the end; the old fear the young, seeing in them the energy they lack.

This is not good versus evil; this is maturity versus immaturity. An interesting idea for a novel about Hell.

The style is pacey and gripping with a definite increase of tension as the action builds to the show-down. Murders, recalled by Steve, and committed by the guitar (the victims literally sucked into the instrument) are recounted in splendidly graphic detail: bodies bursting open, viscera drawn out, and then the body cracked in half and exploded into a mist of blood. These come thicker and faster as the narrative starts to wind to its close, so that what begins as a possible psychological thriller becomes definitely horrific. The immediacy of the events is masterfully delivered, one excellent example being the Hell-fire and explosive power of Steve’s guitar-playing under influence, which leaves the fictional audiences breathless, and the reader boggling. With the spread of Hellish influence, the rot is setting in and an attack of deformed, be-fanged worms and, later, swarms of human-headed rats generate a skin-tickling ‘urch!’ factor.

A lot happens, but is deftly handled. Days pass in swift succession, the narrative driven by the thoughts of the characters, providing a rich tapestry from which to hang psychological traumas and to weave in the details of lives lived. Events are padded out by flashback and resurfacing memories, creating a space of many voices, but all tied securely to one story. As such, it makes sense to have direct, personal connections between all the characters and keep the action as tight as possible. These are not Earth-shattering epic events, Hollywood-style, although if the heroes fail it could well mean the end of the world; these are the laying of ghosts of the self and the past, and moving into the future. Lydia might lose her man, but she feels him in her; a sense of rightness about a presence, lingering still. If fear and pain can control us and limit our lives through our bad memories, then we are rendered whole and strong through good memories our loved ones will carry of us. We become what others recall.

I really enjoyed Axe; a professional-standard, well-written piece that adds to the canons of rock and roll and Hell narratives, without compromising its vision. The horror was well-handled and necessary to the story. It was never over-done and it added a frisson of nastiness that was needed to delineate the Hellish from the normative. A clear and resounding voice, Grimwood done good.

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