The glowing face was human, but that was about all that could be said in its defense. It glided up out of the blackness, surround by a softly undulating bubble that might have been air or might have been translucent skin. As Ido flailed her limbs about, trying to swim away from this radiant herald of her death, the face suddenly shifted—it was a woman’s visage now, and then it was a boy’s, and then an old crone…the only thing that remained the same was the wan light it emitted. That, and every face in the luminous orb was mutely screaming.
Interview by Stephen Graham Jones.
Jesse Bullington was new in Boulder at the same time I was. First time we met was the same place we’ve been meeting ever since: over vegan chili. Which is pretty metal, if you don’t know. And, since then, each year I’ve read one of his novels, that’s been my best read of the year. Dude has an eye for fantasy and history, and he sings a razor line every time on the page. One of the few writers I trust to bring the goods with each novel. These are some questions I asked him, kind of ramping off his story in the debut issue of Despumation:
Stephen Graham Jones: So, you know a metal magazine’s starting up, and they’re going to run fiction, not just promotion and posters. And you know you want to be in that magazine. And you know what you’re going to have to do: write a metal story. And before I get any further, here, let me confess that I’m also the you, here. I knew Despumation was happening, and I’m into metal and fiction, so stabbing at this TOC seems obvious. It’s you in that TOC of the debut issue, though. All the metal stories I could think of were just junk that happened at concerts, and all the leadup and fallout and years-later cringing. You tapped into something more core with “Holy Diver,” though. Like, you peeled the gunk off the stage of the coliseum and found this whole other world yawning open. “How” is a stupid question to ask about that, of course—”talent,” “imagination,” “kitten sacrifice,” it’s all the same—but I can dig a “Why” out, I think: Why plant Ido Blackdew back in Conan-ish times? Are those the characters or mindset or setting you feel undergirds metal? Or a certain brand of metal? Extra points if you can incorporate Frazetta somehow.
Jesse Bullington: I went that direction with my story because I think fantasy fiction and metal share a common ancestor in our lizard brains: that desperate urge for escape from the mundane. It’s no coincidence that of all the myriad genres and expressions of music, it’s metal that draws the most from fantasy (and horror, but that’s an answer for a different story—yours, maybe?). You mentioned Frazetta, and I imagine way more metal fans will recognize that name than aficionados of any other form of music, and with good reason; drenched in dark inks and brutal set-pieces, Frazetta’s art is essentially an oxymoron: stationary metal. It can also be cheesy sometimes, sure, but that’s a risk you run with any art, isn’t it? If you aren’t willing to be laughed at or derided, you’ll never push far enough to break away, which is what metal is all about.
I think escapism has been a part of metal from the very beginning; the origin of metal was an attempt to break away into uncharted musical territory, and the constant evolution of metal and fissuring into strange new sub-genres is all part of that need to escape from the common place, the expected, the acceptable. For me, and I think for most everyone who loves some form of metal, the escape the music provides is downright cathartic—whatever particular subgenres or bands you like, we can probably all agree that the moment when you can press play and lose yourself in the heaving noise is something special, something necessary.
And that’s exactly what good fantasy fiction can do, transport you away from this modern world with all its banal horrors and into someplace louder, faster, heavier, crazier. Violent, monstrous worlds, places infinitely more dangerous and therefore infinitely more interesting. So for me, all metal carries within its deep, dark heart the potential to transport us away, into the realm of the Ido Blackdews and Conan of Cimmerias and other figures and scenes worthy of being airbrushed onto the panel of a bitching van. I think this is true of even bands that play it pretty straight and grounded, not just the obvious acts like Bal Sagoth (who Frankensteined their own mythos together out of homages to Robert. E Howard and a dozen other major fantasists). So as soon as I heard about Despumation, I knew I wanted to write something for it, and there was never any doubt that I’d write something totally over-the-top and fantastical.
SGJ: Over-the-top and fantastical and a bad-ass woman protagonist. Which, aside from Red Sonja, fantasy doesn’t have nearly enough of. Or, urban fantasy seems to get all the women protagonists, while fantasy can sometimes get stuck in a Boris Vallejo poster. Metal too. There a reason for this, you think—or, is there a single reason that applies to both? And, so you won’t have to say it yourself, it seems like, with “Holy Diver,” you’re writing against that tradition very much on purpose. And, yes, as Whedon says, that I’m asking this question is maybe part of the problem. However, you seem like the person who can maybe get at an answer.
Bullington: Well, I think in terms of representations of women in media, whether it’s music or books or games or whatever, we see the same old sexist bullshit time and again, and that’s hardly limited to metal and fantasy. I think the root of the problem is that from day one our society actively discourages young men from relating to women, period—in the publishing world, for example, it’s well-established that young adult books do way better with a male protagonist, like Harry Potter, because while young women happily and effortlessly put themselves in the head of a boy hero, young men are far less willing to read about girl heroes. This isn’t the result of biological differences impacting reading habits, it is the consequence of telling boys over and over again not to be “girly,” of teaching them that the interests and strengths of men are fundamentally different from (and better than) those of women. So young men are imprinted with this idea that certain spheres are “dudes only,” and later in life some of these same guys are the ones insisting that female metalheads or fantasy fans have to somehow prove their bonafides or risk being labeled a “fake” fan who’s only in it for male attention. There is probably nothing worse for metal, fantasy, or society on the whole than the crooked patriarchal system, and the only way it will get better is if we stop tolerating this garbage from our peers, and do better with the next generation.
So, uh, that rant wasn’t maybe what you had in mind, but anyway, in terms of writing against the stereotype on purpose, I’m glad that Ido Blackdew came across as well as I’d hoped she would. She’s also an object lesson in what I’m talking about above, because in the first draft of the story she wasn’t Ido, she was Udo, an old character I played in a high school roleplaying game. It was only after I finished the story and was revising it that I realized that if I switched Udo’s gender the story would be even better, and so I did, and so it was. I didn’t change a damn thing other than her name and gender pronouns and such. I don’t know if I could always get away with being that lazy, depending on the character, but in this case I found that it worked like a charm, because when you get right down to it the big differences between individuals don’t have anything to do with gender or race or sexual orientation or whatever, they come down to personality. We’ve got to break out of our default settings if we really want to find new ground to tread.
SGJ: Yep. And I suspect a big part of that’s questioning the battlefield utility of, say, a metal bikini. Which Ido wouldn’t much go for, I don’t think. But she would go for some Dio or some Lemmy, I imagine, and she’d be right at home in a Danzig video, so long as she got to do some damage. And, from the tone of this piece—and, as everybody should know, it’s very much in keeping with your three novels, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, The Enterprise of Death, and The Folly of the World—I’m betting those are more or less your tastes, yes? Or were once upon a time? Which is a set-up, of course; it’s like asking you to badtalk Sabbath. All the same, metal’s gone a lot of different ways, from the death growl bands all the way to Nelson, from early Metallica to late Metallica. Where do you fall on that spectrum? What do prefer? What can you recommend? Was Appetite for Destruction as pivotal for you as it was for me? And, for a last question: Of all the novels out there, fantasy or whaever, which is the most metal of them all? If there could be only one, which would it be?
Bullington: Good question(s)! Where I fall on the metal spectrum varies from day to day, really, or even hour to hour, track to track—as I’ve gotten older my tastes have broadened, so I’m finding something I like across just about every sub-genre or micro-classification. It is kind of funny, though, that when I was a kid in the early 90s and first getting into metal, older stuff like Dio and the English greats like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motörhead, etc. seemed way too cheesy, with Black Sabbath maybe being the exception that proved the rule. I came to metal via White Zombie and earlier Metallica albums, and didn’t waste much time becoming a kind of archetypal mid-90s dirtbag, giving myself whiplash with all the obvious black, thrashy, and death metal bands: Cannibal Corpse, Slayer, Pantera, Bolt Thrower, Cradle of Filth, Sepultura, Summoning, Old Man’s Child, Entombed, Meshuggah, Nile, Nailbomb, and so on. Gwar. Danzig definitely crept in there, as a sort of reverse-engineered gateway drug to the Misfits, and some of the more ridiculous melodic acts (or is it symphonic? Rhapsodic? Too many subgenres to keep track!)—anyway, Amon Amarth and Bal-Sagoth, definitely, and I’d maybe sneak Malice Mizer in there just for kicks. As I got older, though, I started appreciating the classics way more, and went back to all those aforementioned bands. Except maybe GnR, who will always and forever be “November Rain” to me. Worse fates, I suppose; that is a pretty monster ballad.
As for what I prefer now, and what I’d recommend, there’s so much that springs to mind that I run the risk of just filling up pages with names of bands. The internet has made it so much easier to find great new music that just about every day I’m turned onto something new. I’m digging the sludgey, doomy, stoner metal more and more, which is ass-backwards since back when I was actually a burnout I mostly listened to fast stuff. Lemme see, some of my favorite bands I’ve only discovered in the last ten years or so would be Wolves in the Throne Room, Sleep, Earth, Kylesa, Kvelertak, Jex Thoth, Jucifer, Agalloch, Ides of Gemini, Windhand, Absu, Asva, Pallbearer, Blood Ceremony, Insomnium, Conan, SubRosa, Deafheaven, Finntroll, Year of the Goat, Oathean, Christian Mistress, Boris, Old Man Gloom, Red Fang, Black Tusk, Horn of the Rhino, and yeah, I’ll own it: Ghost (BC, now, I guess?). Just to name a few!
Finally, the most metal novel of all time? That’s tough, because my new one hasn’t dropped yet… But no, for serious, this is the hardest question of all, and so it’s also the best. After extensive internal deliberation, a sip of whisky, and a few Dethklok tracks, I’m going with Freddy’s Book by John Gardner. Gardner’s most famous for Grendel, his wry, sympathetic take on Beowulf’s misunderstoond monster, but for me this lesser-known novel trumps it, at least on the metal scale. The main narrative features a weary knight in late medieval Scandinavia hunting down no less an enemy than Satan himself. Then there’s the language of the text, fast and fierce at times, brooding and dense when it needs to be, with more of a sense of humor than you’d expect, and always incredibly controlled and precise in its chaos as the schemes of the Unholy One come to fruition, corruption and religious hypocracy the order of the day. And this dread tale of old, witch-haunted Europe is itself a story-within-a-story, with the novel actually opening with its author arriving at a dreary, dilapidated house in rural Wisconsin and receiving the titular tome from it’s author, Freddy, an unsociable man-child hiding from the bleakness of his existence in the history he has created, a history as true and rich as any of the other lies we’ve told ourselves down the years, as we’ve crept from the shadows of our brutal past, bloody-handed and cruel-eyed and all agreeing on the version of events we’re going to stick to, in case we’re ever questioned. Freddy’s Book, man: tell me that’s not a Mastodon concept album waiting to happen…
Stephen Graham Jones has something like sixteen novels and six collections out there. His favorite metal? It’s all from the eighties, Metal Health up to Slave to the Grind, with plenty of Kix and Cinderella in there on cassette, and in his DNA. He figures D.A.D. is probably the most underrated of the hair metal shelf, and he still studies the back cover of Appetite for Destruction probably more than he should. Just still thinking ‘what if.’