Spray-Paint It Black
Teens need music more than they need hot food. They need music more than clean, breathable air. Teens without music, just maybe, are like snails without shells, crawling naked through a world that aches to crush them. And if you want teens to take you seriously–whether you’re a parent or the president–your message requires the perfect soundtrack.
Richard Kadrey, author of the paranormal fantasy series Sandman Slim, cues up his matte black iPod for Dead Set, his new novel featuring Zoe, a high school junior who’s targeted by evil after her father’s sudden death. By evil, I mean both punk chicks who sip vodka during school lunch, and the more traditional soul-thieves, who rule hellish nether realms with an army of wolf-men.
That Kadrey has a message for teens isn’t immediately clear from his set-up, or from the girl and dog strolling across Dead Set‘s cover. But as we enter Zoe’s world of bored teachers and a terminally distraught, jobless mother, we discover this stand-alone thriller–already enjoyable for its phantasmagoria and clever twists–speaks directly to teens in specific ways.
Since her father’s death (and the insurance company’s bureaucratic screw-up), Zoe and her mother have moved to a San Francisco ghetto called the Tenderloin. The fact that her “old [bedroom] window had faced a green backyard with almond trees and low hills,” and her new one “faced the back of a run-down hardware store” stomps her flatter every day. Mom copes by filling ashtrays. Zoe dreams.
Usually, she dreams of an elaborate tree-house that looks out on an endless almond grove. There, Zoe plays with Valentine, the brother she never actually had in waking life. Lately, however, dreams of a desolate city and a trailing black dog have plagued her nights. When an actual black dog follows her to school, always half-a-block behind, Zoe prepares for reality to grow more miserable.
And indeed it does. Show World High–despite being nicknamed after a local strip club–is depressingly typical. Here’s what Zoe finds, vainly searching for the easy-going smart kids who haven’t succumbed to stereotypes:
In the lunchroom the student tribes were as plentiful and, thank God or Iggy Pop or whoever, as obvious as the ones at her old school. The jocks, the skate rats, the computer geeks, the Goths, and the stoners in their baggy Kurt Cobain thrift-store rags all had pretty rigid dress codes, so they were easy to spot. The computer geeks sat together at one table. Like the stoners, they mostly kept to themselves, so she didn’t have to worry about one of them actually trying to talk to her.
The only brightness in her day is Mr. Danvers’ biology class. Aside from the room itself being floor-to-ceiling fascinating with anatomy posters and mounted skeletons, Danvers is the one teacher not enthroned behind his desk, rattling off notes; instead, he engages the students with colorful stories and props. He keeps their attention with lines like, “The first person to say ‘Intelligent Design’ has to wear the Charles Darwin beard I keep in my desk for the rest of the year.”
But, as Darwin would agree, even the shyest creatures end up under the microscope. Missing her dad, who was a road manager for late 70s punk bands, Zoe wears his ratty The Germs: Germicide T-shirt to school. As if flagged down off the hipster superhighway, a blue-haired girl named Absynthe pauses to gush over the “very retro” look. This leads to lunch with Absynthe’s friends (who are tipsy), and later, fond memories of talking music with her dad.
Don’t know–or care–about early punk bands and albums? No problem. Dead Set isn’t a righteous schooling in The Cramps or Double Nickels on the Dime. Though categorized as adult sci-fi/fantasy, it’s a teen novel, spray-painted black with references to fist-pumping rock and the occasional cuss. Kadrey lures in his intended audience by being just edgy enough; the way many twelve-year-old girls read Seventeen, many high school juniors would rather read something from a bookstore’s sci-fi/fantasy section than yet another dumbed-down Hunger Games clone.
Once Kadrey has slapped Zoe in the rusty shackles of home and school, he Brings the Weird. Roaming her neighborhood, she comes across a dingy shop with the sign “AMMUTT RECORDS. RARE, USED & LOST.” Inside she meets the preternaturally tall, pale and bald proprietor, Emmett (or The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, to the rockers keeping score). Zoe is, of course, wearing a “ripped Clash T-shirt that she’d bought at a garage sale for fifty cents,” but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that she finds a back room behind a beaded curtain, with a secret, unlabeled record bin. Inside?
The disc wasn’t black, but milky white and translucent, shot through with a spidery red- and-blue web work that looked like veins and arteries. At the center of the LP, pierced by the round spindle hole, as if wounded, was a heart. In the strange underwater light of the backroom, Zoe could swear the heart was beating.
These records live in brown paper sleeves covered in strange symbols. The symbols, Emmett explains, refer to someone whose soul has been lost. When Zoe listens to a record on the many-needled Animagraph, she briefly lives the life of a pregnant woman from 1904. “Holy shit,” whispers Zoe. “That was so cool.”
When she asks for an encore, Emmett says, “Would you like to see your father’s life?” The price, bewitchingly, is a lock of her hair. She agrees to come back the next day. Kadrey uses the beat between record store visits superbly, cranking up the tension at Zoe and Valentine’s dream fort. There’s mist encroaching, and her brother who-never-was spies, through a telescope, an uninvited creeper in the distant mountains.
Thankfully, Zoe is from a sturdy stock of horror film heroines, like Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), who fight back against evil rather than just scream at it. She finds AMMUTT RECORDS again, and boldly hands her DNA to the creepy bald man. Before listening, she asks Emmett how he knows about her and her father. “You found the back room. That meant there was something for you back here.” In fantasy, this type of answer plays with disturbing effectiveness as dream-logic. Anywhere else, it’s lazy plot-massaging.
More importantly, we don’t know what kind of shirt Zoe’s wearing while she listens to her father’s record. Instead of spraying on more black–pandering, that is, to certain readers with the dropping of yet another band name–Kadrey focuses on the authenticity of an actual punk show, experienced through her father’s senses. Then, while being “punched in the chest” by the performance, Zoe and her father see a girl:
She was almost as tall as he was, with a dark Mohawk, lurid purple eye shadow, and sleeveless denim jacket with FUCK YOU VERY MUCH stenciled across the back… When she noticed Zoe’s father checking her out, she smiled and stood her ground. It was the smile of someone who knew exactly how hot she was and was utterly at ease with being stared at. It took a few seconds to sink in before she recognized the girl as her mother. The girl who would become her mother in a few years.
Yes, Zoe (basically) makes out with her own mother. But it’s a small moment in what becomes a roaring kaleidoscope–ending with her father’s death. When she asks to take things further–to speak with him–Emmett says he needs one of her teeth. Again, she agrees. Kadrey’s piecemeal sacrifice of Zoe for the sake of love is beautifully executed (and reminiscent of many Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, like The Little Mermaid). Moving into Dead Set‘s second third, we can already feel the hot currents of an incredible twist approaching.
Meanwhile, Zoe returns to high school with an enlightened view of cheerleaders and Doctor Who fangirls, realizing that their cliquishness is a forgivable phase of life. And yet, none of them “possessed the confidence her mother had had, that magic rock-star arrogance. The kind that didn’t push you away, but drew you to her.” Did ground level enjoyment of the passionately new punk scene lend her mother such confidence? It’s not explicitly said, but Kadrey’s critique of our nostalgia obsessed society begins to gel. He hints to his core audience that it’s more rewarding to celebrate something original, that nobody else has yet.
When Zoe finally gives Emmett a tooth, he allows her to cross the line between living and dead and visit her father. He hesitantly welcomes her to the desolate city from her “black dog” dreams, Iphigene (from Iphigenia, the daughter whom Agamemnon sacrifices to appease Artemis in Greek mythology). Kadrey fills the haunted city with trash mounds, skeletal school buses, and buildings that twist together like weeds in an unkempt garden. This imagery cleaves close to early 80s horror films– again, the “teens-in-hell” trauma of A Nightmare on Elm Street, crossed with some of Hellraiser‘s more demented motifs. But this “sacrificial” realm also reminds us of Mumbai or parts of Nigeria, where scavenging entire streets of the world’s garbage is a full-time job.
To whom is Iphigene sacrificed? Zoe meets hordes of lost souls, some new to her and some familiar, who’ve had to replace shredded limbs with junk prosthetics. Queen Hecate–a combination of the Queen from Snow White and a sober version of singer Courtney Love–is responsible, and rules the once placid limbo with an army of monstrous animal enforcers. And lest we think that Dead Set is all spook and no splat, the tale’s later third delivers great undead action:
A tall man in a rotting tracksuit reached out his snakeskin hand and raked his cracked fingernails down Zoe’s throat. She felt blood where he’d touched her. She punched the man in the chest as hard as she could. Her hand went all the way through him and out his back. She let out a small scream, and when she pulled her arm back, the man flew apart like someone blowing on a dandelion. The souls backed away for a moment, then pressed in against her from every direction.
Zoe’s presence–as a living girl among the dead–incites some finely-choreographed chaos. The scene in which she scrambles up a mountain of moldering boxes, rolled carpets, and furniture–harried by arrows and winged snakes–is mesmerizing. Interrupting the action, however, is this conspicuously groove-jumping paragraph:
She really envied Absynthe right then. Absynthe smoked, and when you smoked, you always had something to do. When you were outside with a cigarette, people knew why you were there. You weren’t waiting for a ride home or standing nervously on the corner, hoping your date hadn’t stood you up. No, you were taking a moment to indulge your nicotine addiction. Besides, smoking always gave you something to do with your hands, she thought. Zoe thrust hers deep into the pockets of her father’s coat. Maybe I’ll start smoking again when I get home. Mom would love that.
Initially, it’s easy to see this as a half-shrugging glamorization of smoking. But nowhere does Dead Set actually do that. The opposite happens, as Kadrey draws an ashy line between the overcompensating Absynthe and the one other character who does smoke, Zoe’s haggard mother. Her thoughts intentionally echo lame excuses that young smokers usually give for roasting their insides.
By the end, Zoe has seen and swallowed enough of Iphigene’s horrors to shake off the numbness of her waking life. “Please don’t do that,” she finally says, before her mother can light up, “It’s not good for you.” Don’t Smoke may seem like a rote message, but teens can’t hear it enough. Their family members, and the music and movie stars they worship, don’t necessarily care about their own health, so it’s refreshing to see a writer acknowledge the subject.
Then, in the closing scene, Absynthe becomes the second prong in Kadrey’s attack on teens squandering their health and their own vibrant music scene. She suggests that Zoe listen to something recorded this century. Taken together in a ghoulish modern fairy tale, these messages make Dead Set an exemplary read. They certainly beat hollow the “grow up and buy the rest of my books” track found in John Grisham’s Theodore Boone or James Patterson’s Daniel X.
Imagine, God forbid, new becoming the new black.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.