There are two main obsessions in my life: books and music. You can usually find me hunched over a book with a pair of headphones slapped securely over my ears. Both obsessions have lead me to wonderful things; I am an avid writer and a truly abysmal guitar player. They’ve also started to mix together in my weird, wormy brain. Books have begun to take on soundtracks of their own as I read them. Words become notes and chords, narrative themes become bands, and soon I can’t read a certain book without having to pair it with an album or playlist, like pairing wine with a specific dish.
Some books come preloaded with music in their pages. Grady Hendrix’s excellent ode to metal, We Sold Our Souls, is all Black Sabbath and Slayer and Metallica. Catherynne M. Valente’s hilarious Space Opera is the very best of glam rock like David Bowie and T. Rex and the glittery disco-pop of ABBA. Science fiction and fantasy books specifically about music are relatively rare, though—it’s hard to distill a purely auditory experience into book form unless you’re actually writing about rock stars or the music business. And yet, some books still demand their own playlists, turning my brain into a Spotify algorithm gone rogue. Some books crackle with the same jangly energy as the Rolling Stones or have the same brittle pop charm as Taylor Swift. Some books dance or mosh or stage dive. Some books are a solo guitar and the reek of bad whiskey and cigarettes, while others thrum with the lyrical rush of a perfectly delivered rap battle victory.
Here is a small sampling of some recent books that, in my mind, evoke particular bands and music genres…
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir — Carpenter Brut
Gideon the Ninth is already on my list of the best books of 2019. It’s an arcane joy, dripping with gothic horror, mystery, and some truly fantastic characters that are sure to haunt your head for the rest of your days. Everyone throws around metal when they talk about Gideon and they aren’t wrong. In fact, that was one of the first things that came to mind when I saw the cover: Gideon’s skull paint is one of the hallmarks of metal and it’s been worn by artists and bands like Mayhem, King Diamond from Mercyful Fate, and Papa Emeritus I, II, and III from Ghost, for decades. A metalhead with skull paint is classic, and I was beyond delighted to see Gideon wear it.
Despite it’s clear metal lineage, Gideon the Ninth’s almost frantic energy led me down another musical pathway to French horror synthwave artist Carpenter Brut and his 2017 album, Trilogy. Synth music is making a big comeback and Carpenter Brut has led the way, infusing his beats with the same kind of flourishes you’d hear in horror movie soundtracks. The songs, mostly instrumentals, are steeped in blood and terror. They reach a fever pitch and dump adrenaline straight into your veins, leaving you with a sense of unease even while you can’t stop bopping your head. You can’t help but envision sleek spaceship hallways with flickering lights and grasping skeleton hands reaching for you in the intermittent darkness. Both Carpenter Brut and Gideon take cues from metal and horror: It’s a match made in bloody, slick, futuristic Hell.
- “Turbo Killer” by Carpenter Brut
- “Robeast” by Dance With The Dead
- “Gloria” by The Midnight
- “Graveyard Shift” by Battle Tapes
- “Humans Are Such Easy Prey” by Perturbator
Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan — Kamelot
If it’s metal you’re hankering for, though, then I’d like to introduce you to Wicked Saints. This astounding debut novel hit my little world like an asteroid and my headspace hasn’t been the same since. Obsessed? Just a little bit. It’s brutal and bloody and beautiful. This book is a mood and an aesthetic and I could not be more here for it. It takes place in a fantasy setting similar to Russia and it is one of the most metal books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Spells are activated by blood and two countries are locked in a seemingly never-ending war. There are cruel gods and even crueler people and our poor protagonists must do everything they can to survive while retaining their sanity and their lives. It’s a striking story, and even though I read it in a heatwave I felt the chill of the snow coming out of the pages. It’s an atmospheric treasure—and so is Kamelot, a metal band that’s been around for decades. They’ve been through lineup changes over the years, but they’re still going strong. Just like the world of Wicked Saints, their music evokes a sense of unending winter and mythic grandeur, with hints of lurking horrors waiting for you in the dark. Wicked Saints has sharp teeth and it goes for your jugular; its soundtrack should do the same.
- “Hunter’s Season” by Kamelot
- “Don’t Tell A Soul” by Katatonia
- “Reverie/Harlequin Forest” by Opeth
- “The Fool” by Fleshgod Apocalypse
- “Autre Temps” by Alcest
Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh — Hozier
Hozier is an dark faerie prince who left his bog in Ireland and stepped into civilization to bring us songs of love and loss. I’m not even surprised that Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh’s astoundingly beautiful novella, became twined around his melodies like overgrown ivy around a trellis as I read. Silver in the Wood is a stunning work, full of quiet moments of sincere loveliness and shocking glimpses of murder and death. It’s supernatural in the ways all the best old folk tales are and it feels strangely ancient, as if it’s a story that has been told and retold for centuries. That’s how Hozier’s 2014 self-titled album feels, as well, and now both works are stuck together in my head. In fact, Hozier’s song “In The Woods Somewhere” is practically the theme song to Silver in the Woods in my mind. Both are soaring examples of darkly beautiful folk tales, both with elements that hint at something wrong and sinister just out of sight, at the edge of your senses. Each delicate guitar note is like a stab wound, each new chapter in the book bringing you closer to some terrible knowledge. You keep reading, you keep listening, because you have to know just what will happen next…even though that knowledge might crush you. Someone send this book to Hozier: he needs to make a concept album.
- “Run” by Hozier
- “Blinding” by Florence + The Machine
- “Your Bones” by Of Monsters and Men
- “Falling” by The Civil Wars
- “Meet Me In The Woods” by Lord Huron
The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht — The Decemberists
If you want songs about murder and mayhem, look no further than those scholarly, verbose folk rockers, The Decemberists. If you want a book about murder and mayhem, well, you need to check out Jennifer Giesbrecht and her monsters. Together they offer an unbeatable combination of sneering, grinning villainy the likes of which your stereo and bookshelf have never before seen. Giesbrecht’s story is a perfect blend of horror and legend, encrusted with a layer of sea salt and grime. The Monster of Elendhaven has the feel of a particularly nasty sea shanty, sung while sailing cold seas by cold men. It’s twisted and sinister and sharper than a surprise knife between your ribs. The Decemberists are no strangers to tales of revenge and murder and their music melds together with Giesbrecht’s narrative to form a horrifically perfect union. With songs featuring titles like “Shankill Butchers” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” the Decemberists are delighted to oblige your darkest, most feral desires. I can’t help but imagine the titular Monster of Elendhaven with their lyrics on his tongue, the last thing his unsuspecting victims ever hear.
- “Down By the Water” by The Decemberists
- “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
- “Blood of Angels” by Brown Bird
- “One Foot Before the Other” by Frank Turner
- “Late March, Death March” by Frightened Rabbit
The Shades of Magic Series by V.E. Schwab — Siouxsie and the Banshees
A series as glorious as Shades of Magic deserves its own siren, and her name is Siouxsie Sioux. V.E. Schwab’s incredible story of different Londons tore me to pieces and all I could hear in my head as I raced to the end of each book was Siouxsie’s voice purring “Oh, your city lies in dust, my friend”. From the glittering, lush beauty of Red London to the vicious and bleak world of White London, Siouxsie chased me the entire way. Born out of the English punk scene, Siouxsie and the Banshees became one of the most famous bands in the ’80s goth scene. Known for her soaring vocals and iconic stage makeup, there’s no greater ambassador for the different Londons than Siouxsie. The band’s songs are both beautiful and bruising, severe and sinuous. Siouxsie herself contains as many facets and multitudes as the novels she’s become paired with in my head—she has a song and persona for each separate London and more. Together they will leave you utterly spellbound.
- “Ornaments of Gold” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
- “This Corrosion” by The Sisters of Mercy
- “Fascination Street” by The Cure
- “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode
- “Asleep” by The Smiths
These are just a few examples of books that, for me, completely evoke the feeling of certain bands and music genres—of course, this is not intended to be exhaustive in any sense! You may disagree with me (“How dare you, Shades of Magic clearly needs a Beatles playlist!”), but that’s the best part of listening to music and reading books; none of us experience them the same way. There’s no right way to do this, so go out there, take some of your favorite books and build your own playlists. Sometimes you just want to stay in a fictional world a little bit longer, and this is a great way to keep the book’s vibe going, so introduce your bookshelves to your record collection and see what magic they can make together! Let’s make this a thing—then I won’t feel so weird when I go into a bookstore and try to find books that sound like My Chemical Romance or Led Zeppelin.
Let me know in the comments what music you pair with your favorite books!
Meghan Ball is a writer who enjoys playing guitar and spending way too much time on Twitter. You can find her there at @EldritchGirl. She currently lives in a weird part of New Jersey.