“The sign said ‘Gulpepper, population 8,000,’ Torsten said. “That’s not a tiny hamlet.”
“Did you saw the bit underneath?” Simone asked. “Someone writed it on.”
“It said, ‘But the dead out number the living.’
—Alan Baxter, “The Gulp”
“I saw the body spread on that dank stone,
And knew those things which feasted were not men…”
—H.P. Lovecraft, “Fungi from Yuggoth” (IV. The Recognition)
Recently, I’ve been curious about the relationship between horror and heavy metal music. What is it about either the genre of literature or the style of music that lends themselves to one another? Why are so many heavy metal bands drawn to horror imagery and so many horror fans drawn to heavy metal sounds? The cynical answer is, of course, marketing and dollar dollar bills, y’all, but in “The Band Plays On,” Australian horror maestro Alan Baxter provides an answer that gives credence to the worst nightmares of 1970’s and 80’s suburban moms. The story is found in the number three slot of his newest publication, THE GULP: FIVE TALES OF HORROR, which was self-published by Baxter in January 2021. I’m grateful to him for providing me with a free e-arc in exchange for an honest review.
The stories in THE GULP all take place in or around the fictional town of Gulpepper, Australia, affectionately known as ‘The Gulp.’ Strange things happen in ‘The Gulp’ that no one can explain and that the residents are eerily comfortable with. I was immediately reminded of Twin Peaks and the town of Haven from the Stephen King TV series of the same name. From the first story, told from the perspective of outsiders to ‘the Gulp,’ we are warned that people can flat out disappear there, that the town swallows some people, lending a darker shade of meaning to its otherwise cute nickname. In the second novella, told from the perspective of two residents of ‘the Gulp,’ we are shown just how strange, and indeed how hungry, things can get. But it’s not until this third story that events take on a cosmically sinister tone.
“Patrick noticed his fingernails were painted blood red. In fact, all the band had blood red nails. And the deep black makeup around their eyes wasn’t just smudged kohl, but jet black with dozens of thin filaments, like capillaries, spreading out around the orbit of the eye and over the cheekbone.” This third story is about a group of young vagabonds who catch a concert of the band Blind Eye Moon on their travels through Australia. Patrick, Ciara, Torsten, and Simone get singled out by the band at the show as outsiders and invited over to the band’s house (don’t all bands live together?) for an after-party. They readily accept, end up partying too hard and staying the night. The night turns into several days that get progressively weirder for Patrick, though his fellow wanderers seem quite fine with hanging with these weird rockers for a week or so. Obscure meals are cooked, neon-green shots are thrown back with abandon, and nightmares reign over the night. Patrick clearly wants to leave, and Edgar, one of the band members, even suggests he do so, “The Gulp has a habit of swallowing people…but sometimes it spits one out.” That was one of the creepier lines in the whole story for me, and I found myself rooting for Patrick to be able to break the spell and get out of dodge.
One of the great things about this story was how believable it was; yes, the characters make bad choices, but people make bad choices all the time. In this case, they were bad choices I could understand, even though they’re the type that make you stand up in the theater and scream, “Don’t go in there!” Sometimes those are the most fun movies and there’s a similar fun factor here, too. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few lazy days and hard nights partying with your new favorite band? This particular band’s commitment to their creepy horror affect, though, begins to strain credulity which gives rise to much of the tension in the tale. Baxter directs the reader’s attention to this problem too often though, turning a cautionary observation into an obviously winking, kohl-smudged(?), eyeball.
That literary flashing neon sign was my only problem with the writing, however, as the rest of it flows naturally and effortlessly from his pen. The vagabond youths sound like naive college kids while the slightly more mature band members come off as experienced manipulators. This is a writing challenge and Baxter nails it. The dream sequences, another pit of despair into which writers can fall, are pulled off with aplomb. They are neither too long nor too lurid but provide just the right level of weirdness to amplify the growing horror of the narrative. “The wind was cold and heavy, pendulous clouds, arcing with streaks of purple lightning, filled the lowering sky. He almost felt as though he would be able to reach up and touch them. Gaping red wounds opened in the clouds and things fell, far out near the horizon.” Those sequences are where the story takes on its most Lovecraftian tones, though not in an overt way; there is no Mythos here. But the cosmic chords HPL plucked, as well as a note or two from Robert Bloch’s set list, resound.
Like the Old Gent’s vision of Providence gave the backdrop to so many of his stories, Baxter’s Australia features here. When the geography of a story is so important to it’s success, it is mandatory that the story be told in such a way as to be impossible to take place elsewhere. Local jargon aids Baxter’s efforts here. The handful of specifically Aussie terms sprinkled throughout support and do not detract from the overall effect, and there’s a helpful glossary in the back if you want to look some of them up. Even though I’ve never been to Australia, I definitely felt like I was there while reading THE GULP.
In the end, these are addictive stories of abiding darkness that won’t come out in the wash. The pages turn themselves and the images within those pages return to haunt your dreams. Discovering how each story relates to each becomes a compulsion and you will find yourself simultaneously repulsed by ‘the Gulp,” and desirous of visiting. Finally, I think ‘The Gulp’ is to Baxter what Arkham was to Lovecraft and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last time we’ll get to peep into the windows of this creepy town.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,