Almost Famous is one of my top-five favorite movies of all time, so when I heard that Karina Halle’s newest book, The Devil’s Metal, tells the 1970s-era story of a young female journalist commissioned by Creem magazine to follow and document a rock band’s latest tour, I knew I had to read it. But The Devil’s Metal isn’t just Almost Famous…it’s Almost Famous meets a horror-movie version of Faust. Now if that doesn’t make you want to drop everything and start reading right now, then…well…I really can’t help you! So the question, of course, is whether The Devil’s Metal lives up to this amazing premise—and the answer is a resounding yes!
As in her popular Experiment in Terror series, Halle writes in a very casual, fun, readable, yet witty and evocative style. Here our narrator is 21-year-old Dawn Emerson, a strong, intelligent budding music journalist with some major family baggage. Dawn’s absolute passion for music, her guts and determination, her compassion and loyalty to her family, and her very relatable insecurities all combine to make a heroine you can’t help but root for.
In any book where music plays a large role, it’s absolutely crucial to me that the author describe the music in a way that I can really hear and experience it. I’m happy to say that as a former music journalist herself, Halle really knows her stuff, and her descriptions of the music shine. She captures not only the intricacies of the music itself, but the experience of being part of a live rock show, in passages like this one:
There were lights and smoke, from the stage and from the audience, and Robbie and Sage gave the crowd everything they had. They were dueling against each other, pushing themselves for glory, and by that act, pushing each other. They were both winners here with Robbie leaping into the crowd like a soaring Messiah, making love to the microphone pole, telling the world his secrets with the deepest of growls; and Sage slinking along the sides, surging forward to join his equal, then disappearing into the shadows of the stage, giving the audience only a glimpse of his blistering fingers and the incinerating peels of sound he demanded from his guitar. It was an epic, flawless, tingling-deep-in-my-belly type of show.
Like any good music journalist—or rock musician—though, our narrator doesn’t take herself too seriously, and on the very next page she adds, “It was all the purple prose in the world,” which made me smile.
Halle has also clearly done her research into the 1970s rock scene, and while the band Dawn tours with, Hybrid, is invented, the book is full of real-life musical references. There’s a visit to Creem magazine headquarters and a run-in with Lester Bangs; a live performance from an up-and-coming Tom Waits; and plenty of mentions of Patti Smith, Lisa Robinson, and Pamela des Barres. In fact, one thing I really appreciated about the novel was the honest portrayal of women’s place in the 1970s rock culture, including the sexism they faced. While Almost Famous touched a bit on these issues, as a story seen through the eyes of a teenage boy, it did romanticize the rock scene a bit. The Devil’s Metal, on the other hand, tells it like it is. In a particularly powerful scene early in the novel, Dawn is first belittled by the other (male) journalists backstage, and then she retreats to the band’s dressing room, where she finds the male band members’ behavior…well…hard to stomach. (For the record, I didn’t find it all that bad…or maybe I just read too many rock star biographies.) Overall, I was really glad that Halle showed the dark side of sex, drugs, and groupie culture as well as the allure.
Now I’m sure everyone is wondering, how does the horror element fit into this? Can it possibly work? The fact is that the horror in The Devil’s Metal works very, very well for a few reasons. First off, Hybrid is a heavy metal band, and Halle really uses the black magic/occult/horror-movie-inspired aspect of metal to her advantage, with many references to Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath. In addition, the late 60s and 70s marked a HUGE explosion in horror films, as the idealism of the early 60s shifted to the darker economic and political climate of the 70s. George Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven all debuted in this era, along with classics like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Halle doesn’t refer to any of these movies directly—which I think was a good call—but she definitely references the economic and social climate and its impact on the novel’s characters. That darkness, combined with the eerie, supernatural, horror-movie-like imagery, infuses the novel with a constant, underlying sense of dread. I also loved that Halle has Dawn reading a book called Carrie by “some new author”!
The number-one reason the horror works so well, though, is that as in all the best horror movies and books, the scares take their resonance from real-life situations and emotions—situations that are just amplified to a supernatural, metaphorical extreme. Everyone who’s watched an episode of Behind the Music knows that seeking fame and fortune, especially in the rock-and-roll world, is a bit like selling your soul to the devil. Most of the issues the band faces—the drummer who was hired out of necessity and doesn’t really fit in, the emotionally unstable female bassist whose band-member boyfriend cheats, the seemingly psychopathic groupies—are very believable, just taken to a newly terrifying level. In addition, Halle skillfully combines many of the scary scenes with Dawn’s memories of and pain over her mother’s death. Grounding the supernatural elements in true-to-life emotions makes them feel all the more real, and all the more horrifying.
Of course I can’t end this review without saying something about our love interest, Sage Knightly. Sage is the ultimate dark, brooding, tortured rock star, and he is HOT. While Sage is, of course, a handsome guy, it’s his talent and love for music that really makes him attractive. Sometimes I have a hard time believing the tortured love interest is a real person, rather than an idealized character, but Halle gave Sage enough faults and insecurities to make him feel very real. In addition, Halle’s writing has a wonderful physicality to it (and I’m not just talking about the sex scenes…) that makes Sage a powerful, authentic presence throughout the book.
As for the ending…I had a sneaking suspicion about something throughout the book, and just when I’d decided I was wrong, the author caught me by surprise! I also had a how-did-I-not-realize-what-that-meant, smack-myself-on-the-forehead moment, and I always appreciate it when a book does this! Overall, The Devil’s Metal has a satisfying conclusion…along with the perfect horror-movie ending that sets us up for the sequel.