Today, I am bringing you a wonderful guest post from author Jon O’Bergh, where he discusses the subject of horror stories and music.
So, here it is…
In college I struggled with competing interests between writing and music. Which one would I choose? It took a while before I figured out I could combine the two. Recently, my preoccupation with both pursuits has led me to notice a flood of fiction that blends music and horror. And here’s something else I’ve noticed. Five main themes typically animate these tales:
1) Music conjures something supernatural that is often malevolent;
2) The music itself creates terror and wreaks havoc;
3) A musician makes a pact with the devil;
4) Music is a background presence in the plot but not key;
5) And more rarely, music offers a solution to counteract the horror.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
So You Want to Conjure Something
Alexia Gordon has written a series of novels about an African American classical musician who gets caught up in solving mysteries with a supernatural element. In Death in D Minor (2017), Gethsemane Brown tries to enlist the ghost of her rented Irish cottage to prevent the sale of the land to a developer. Thinking she can summon the ghost by playing his favorite tune, she summons instead the irascible ghost of a sea captain and ends up the prime suspect in a murder. Hailey Piper takes a more gruesome approach with her short story “I’m Not a Chainsaw Kind of Girl, but…” (2020), in which a woman plays strange music on the piano to conjure demons for an unusual request.
When the Music Itself Creates Terror
In many plots, the music itself is invested with terrible power. An old gramophone plays unholy music that leads to destruction in Last Case at a Baggage Auction (2020) by Eric J. Guignard. A young musical prodigy becomes obsessed with transcribing his father’s song that holds terrible power in the phenomenal novel Black Heart Boys Choir (2019) by Curtis M. Lawson. An old man recounts for two podcasters his encounter with a witch who sings a deadly song in the short story “A Cave in the Woods” (2021) by Steve Stred.
A Pact with the Devil
The legend of Faust—about an ambitious man who sells his soul in exchange for worldly gain—has inspired numerous stories for the past five centuries. It has also served as fodder to explain the virtuosity of musicians from the violinist Giuseppe Tartini to the blues guitarist Robert Johnson. But it wasn’t until 1947 that an author used music as the foundation for a Faust story.
Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann, concerns a composer of atonal music whose descent into madness parallels the dissolution of German society under the Nazis. While not horror in the classic sense, the presence of the demonic being Mephistopheles and the horrific events that unfold certainly suggest the book has one foot in the horror camp. More recently, authors have taken up the mantle with their own spin on the legend.
In The Devil Makes Three (2021) by Tori Bovalino, a girl at a private school reluctantly teams up with the headmaster’s son in his quest for a magic spell to cure his mother’s cancer. They inadvertently unleash a demon who tempts the girl with promises of a successful career as a cellist. Although written as a YA story, the plot provides a welcome re-working of Faust that may also appeal to adult readers.
Grady Hendrix serves up a tongue-in-cheek romp with We Sold Our Souls (2018). Former heavy metal guitarist Kris learns that her ex-band’s front man sold the souls of the band members in exchange for fame and fortune. She hits the road on a journey to stop the singer and his soul-sucking demons, inspired by the lyrics from the band’s last album about a hero who throws off the chains of his oppressor. An allegory about capitalism, perhaps?
The Piano Room (2021) by Clio Velentza offers a contemporary Hungarian retelling of the Faust legend. A rich and entitled young man, descended from a long line of notable pianists, does not wish to follow in their footsteps, so the devil offers him the freedom to choose his own destiny. And in the free-standing short story “The Last Chord” (2017) by Chris Kosarich, a guitarist makes a Faustian bargain with a figure named Mr. Black.
Music is not always a significant element of the plot. Sometimes it adds color or an interesting backstory for a character. Jennifer Soucy’s Demon in Me (2020) features a drummer with anger issues. A trip home to help care for her dying mother awakens inner demons and an old cycle of violence. The novel builds slowly like an offshore wave, only gradually revealing the surprising truth about the drummer that plants this firmly in the horror genre. In Brian Kirk’s Will Haunt You (2019), the legend of a book that subjects anyone who reads it to a personalized horror becomes real for a former metal guitarist.
Music Saves the Day
Finally, we come to the rarer example where music offers a solution instead of unleashing something malevolent. I wrote Shockadelica (2021) partly to compensate for this deficiency. Two horror podcasters investigate their haunted apartment building and uncover something sinister. As they confront the evil, a witchy neighbor sings an Irish ballad about supernatural beings. Will the mesmerizing effects of the song, coupled with the creative efforts of the podcasters, thwart the evil force that threatens them all?
About The Author:
Jon O’Bergh is an author and musician who loves a good scare. He grew up in Southern California, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Music from the University of California at Irvine. He has published five books and released over a dozen albums in a variety of styles, including the atmospheric album Ghost Story. His supernatural short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines. After many years living in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., he now resides with his husband in Toronto.
Shockadelica – Jon’s 2021 release!
Weaving together supernatural legends from Ireland, Nigeria, and China, “Shockadelica” follows two friends who must confront their own fears while fighting an evil, existential threat. With a dash of humor and horror, the story explores prejudice, conspiracy theories, and things that aren’t what they appear to be, offering a critical look at the current state of the world.
Two horror podcasters—drag artist Kendall Akande and best friend Jenna Chen—share a passion for art, fashion, and horror. When they find out their Victorian-era apartment building might be haunted, they see an opportunity for an entertaining podcast episode. They learn that a past resident, inspired by demonic images of a goat-headed man, lured victims to his apartment and murdered them. While visiting his grave, they are spooked by a man in a goat mask who watches from the bushes.
The two friends launch their investigation and get a glimpse into the lives of their unusual neighbors. Rooney Xavier posts fake online testimonials for businesses and starts dating the landlord’s son, hoping for perks. Aging fashion diva Morvena Delacroix rages against any noise Rooney makes downstairs. The Nigerian/Irish witch Lilith Adebayo offers interventions to help Kendall with his nightmares. Lucy Lee talks to her vegetables when she cooks and helps Jenna cope with her grandmother’s worsening dementia. An intimidating musician named the Bone Man has tattoos of serial killers covering his arms. The dignified Mrs. Gupta, architect Elliott Bernbaum, and a reclusive tenant in the basement round out the cast. As strange sightings and sounds spread, Kendall and Jenna visit the landlord on Ward’s Island, but his house of curiosities only deepens the mystery. Then a stranger appears who promises protection if Kendall sacrifices something of value.
As the ghosts of the past become entwined with the growing terror, Kendall and Jenna must use their creativity to confront the evil force that threatens them all.
An album of horror-themed songs by the Bone Man complements the novel and is available at most streaming sites and online retailers.
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