Well, since I couldn’t think of a better idea for an article, I thought that I’d look at some of the reasons why horror fiction is the literary equivalent of heavy metal music 🙂
After all, although the two things do reference each other occasionally, such as the various Iron Maiden references in Shaun Hutson’s novels or the fact that Cradle Of Filth’s “Midian” album was partially inspired by Clive Barker’s “Cabal“, there are some other interesting parallels between these two awesome genres that are worth looking at 🙂
1) They were both popular during the 1980s (and are still going): Although I was technically around during part of the 1980s, I was unfortunately too young to really experience this awesome decade properly. But, in about 2001/2, I discovered both heavy metal music and horror fiction (seriously, it was one hell of a year 🙂 ) and – surprise surprise – most of the old Iron Maiden, Judas Priest etc.. albums and second-hand Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc.. novels I found were all from the 1980s.
It absolutely blows my mind that there was actually a decade where both of these things were actually popular mainstream things, that you could easily find in major bookshops or possibly even hear on the radio. And, surprisingly, both also shared the same fate during the early-mid 1990s too – whether it was how grunge music took heavy metal’s mainstream popularity or how 1980s-style horror fiction pretty much disappeared.
Of course, both genres adapted to this sudden loss in popularity by either focusing more on die-hard fans and/or by changing themselves to fit into the mainstream. Whether it was the fact that many classic metal bands had built up enough of a loyal fandom during the 1980s to keep going despite the lack of publicity, whether it was less radio-friendly sub-genres of metal becoming more popular amongst metal fans (eg: industrial metal, death metal etc..) or even the Nu Metal fad of the late 1990s/early 2000s that briefly placed metal back into the mainstream, metal survived in one form or another.
On the other hand, horror fiction mostly survived by hiding itself in the psychological thriller, urban fantasy and crime genres during the 1990s. Plus, of course, a few classic 1970s-80s horror authors – such as Stephen King, Anne Rice and James Herbert – still had enough of a large fanbase to still keep publishing horror fiction during the 1990s too.
And, in the present day, both genres are still going strong – albeit in a fairly different form to how they were during the 1980s. Modern horror fiction has achieved some level of “respectability” and actual scariness by focusing slightly more on traditional suspense, psychological horror etc… rather than shock value (eg: novels like Nick Cutter’s “The Deep” and Adam Nevill’s “The Ritual“). Likewise, although a newly-formed metal band is more likely to be a small independent band with a dedicated fanbase these days, there are still a lot of metal bands being formed these days (seriously, look on Youtube). Not to mention that many of the great – and timeless – classic metal bands are still going too 🙂
2) Sub-genres: If there’s one thing to be said for both heavy metal music and horror fiction, it is that they are a lot more complex than non-fans of these genres often tend to think. In short, both things have a lot of different sub-genres that can be so different to each other that they can almost seem like totally different genres.
Whether it is ghost stories, zombie stories, splatterpunk fiction, vampire fiction, psychological thrillers, sci-fi horror stories, weird fiction, gothic fiction, slasher/serial killer fiction and so many other genres, horror fiction can be a surprisingly multi-faceted thing where there is something for everyone. Even so, things are a bit less cut-and-dried than they might seem – given, that for a horror story to be truly scary, it needs to keep the reader on their toes by including multiple types of horror. Still, many horror stories will focus slightly more on one of many different types of horror.
Although genre-mixing is a little less common in heavy metal music, the genre has more sub-genres than I can possibly list here. And new ones are being created all of the time – whether it was the increase in popularity of pirate and viking-themed metal bands during the 2000s, or the way that some modern metal bands include electronic elements in their music (eg: trance metal bands like Rage Of Light etc..) or the fact that there are modern metal bands that make new music inspired by 1980s metal (eg: Iron Spell, Monument, Cauldron, Unleash The Archers etc..), metal is a constantly-evolving genre.
But, if there’s one word that unites the two genres, it is “complexity” or possibly “sophistication”. Although both genres were seen as “low brow” during their 1980s heyday, they will often express more creativity, complexity and variety than you might expect.
3) Awesome painted cover art: Ok, this is much more of a 1980s thing than a modern thing. But, if there’s one thing that both horror fiction and heavy metal albums had in common with each other at the time, it is that their cover art often had some really awesome similarities.
In short, both genres often used really dramatic “realistic”/highly-detailed paintings that would be filled with all sorts of dramatic visual storytelling. In addition to this, they were also one of the few places where new Tenebrist art appeared regularly – whilst updating this old genre slightly by contrasting brighter colours against the traditional gloomy backgrounds.
As works of art, these 1980s book and album covers really didn’t get the popular recognition that they deserve. And, although this cover art style grew out of the limitations of the time (eg: CGI graphics and photo-editing were a bit more primitive or expensive back then), one of the cool side effects of it was that it gave both genres a very distinctive “identity” too.
Or, to put it another way, in the early 2000s, when I only used 56k internet infrequently and smartphones didn’t exist (well, for me, they still don’t 🙂 ), my younger self could easily identify interesting-looking heavy metal albums and old horror novels in second-hand shops by literally just glancing at the cover art. Even though I might never have heard of a particular band or author before, I could tell if they were someone I might like just from the style of the cover art. Can you think of any modern genres, in this age of photo-based cover art, CGI etc… which this is true for?
Plus, of course, when I got into making art, these types of cover art probably had more than a little bit of an influence on how I handle things like lighting and colour – even if my art often tends to have slightly more of a sci-fi/cyberpunk theme to it.
4) Shock value and a sense of humour: One of the cool things about both old-school heavy metal and old-school 1980s horror fiction was that they both had fun with shock value. Whether it was the ultra-gruesome descriptions in the average splatterpunk novel or the hilariously stupid moral panic about heavy metal in mid-1980s America, both genres knew how to rebel and shock.
But, the awesome thing about this is that it was almost always done in a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek fashion. Whether it is the gloriously over-the-top unrealistic silliness of the average “gross out” ’80s splatterpunk novel (see later “giant vermin” novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Breeding Ground” and Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” for great examples of this) or all the hilariously creative and gloriously silly outfits that metal bands used to wear during the ’80s, their sarcastic liner notes/backwards messages about the mid-1980s heavy metal controversy, their on-stage stunts like the giant puppets of Iron Maiden’s “Eddie” mascot or Judas Priest’s Rob Halford riding a motorbike on stage etc..
Neither genre takes all of this “shock value” stuff entirely seriously and this lends both genres a cool, timelessly rebellious and uniquely fun atmosphere that hardly ever turns up anywhere else (I mean, the only other examples I can think of are a few 1990s first-person shooter computer games like “Doom” and “Blood”),
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂