The Rockabilly Singer
It’s always a nice feeling when you come across a brand new author that you also haven’t read before. It’s like the start of a journey you’ve never undertaken, promising great scenery and intriguing sights along the way, and is always unique to any other journey that you’ve experienced. I haven’t come across Maxwell Price before in the horror genre, and a browse on Goodreads seems to indicate that he’s at the very start of his writing career. However I’m always more than ready to give new authors a try, as that’s how I found brilliant new talents like Wesley Southard and Mike Thorn; and the fact that The Rockabilly Singer has been released by no less a publisher than 18thWall Productions is an good indication of the quality of Mr Price’s novella. I’ve read and reviewed a number of 18thWall titles over the past year, and they have been produced to a uniformly high quality, and written by first-class horror authors producing some of the finest occult and supernatural horror I’ve ever read.
The title of the novella seemed interesting enough, and another recent 18thWall title (Jon Black’s amazing Gabriel’s Trumpet) was centred on supernatural music, so I was in the mood to see how the genre of Rockabilly could be used in comparison to Black’s use of Jazz. In addition, there was another eye-catching piece of 18thWall cover art: a guitar player faces a crowd of eager fans as he plays. But there’s something odd about the faces in the crowd, something slightly off-putting, and there’s an ominous green glow offsetting the whole cover that doesn’t seem to bode well. That ill-feeling carries over to the back-cover blurb, where we find that protagonist Cecil Jones, an aging piano player, is coaxed into acting as part of the backing band for mysterious new talent Bucky Bennett, who seems to have a strange, potentially unnatural talent for keeping audiences rapt with his playing. It sounded like a story right up my street, and so I got to reading eagerly.
I immediately took to Cecil Jones as a protagonist and first-person narrator, which is always the sign of a good and engaging title. He seems to have an authentic voice in terms of the time period and the music itself, and it’s obvious that the author put a lot of thought into how to portray him. Jones – and the author himself – has a real knack for interpreting musical passion, and putting that into the form of engaging text. Hard-up on his luck and pursued by debtors, Cecil figures he has nothing to lose by joining old friends Junior White and Big Jim in backing this new rock and roll star who’s wowing the crowds wherever he plays. So far, so normal. Price introduces a fascinating discourse about the difference between country singers and hillbilly singers in the post-war period: how country singers were at pains to hide the drugs, booze and women that plagued their backgrounds, doing so even harder when one died as a result of one of those vices, whereas Hillbilly performers were far rougher in tone and appearance. Elvis spat gum on the floor and told bad jokes, and Gene Vincent dressed in black leather. But even these were performances to hide behind, just of a different sort. So there’s a theme of hidden vices and real faces behind pleasant-seeming facades that dominates the novella and helps to draw you in as a reader.
Price is clearly deeply knowledgeable about the period, both in terms of the social and cultural details, and especially the music. He blends in details of musicians, styles and singles and albums with the overarching story effortlessly and with real panache, bringing you into the world of rockabilly and rock and roll, and sweeping you along with the plot. As with the best titles in the Horror genre, The Rockabilly Singer deftly layers in social commentary alongside its narrative, showing just how controversial and divisive rock and roll and rockabilly were in the United States, and the sense of outrage and even social isolation it fostered in the more conservative elements of the population. It’s just one example of how the world of The Rockabilly Singer is one that feels lived in and real, one that the author has researched comprehensively and instinctively understands; it’s not just composed of (literary) scenery that feels like it’s going to fall apart if a character leans on the wrong thing, or a reader starts thinking about it like some stories I’ve read over the years.
Price also paints an absorbing picture of three old friends – Cecil, Big Jim and Junior White – coming back together after years apart and reuniting their musical talents in a way that speaks of three men who innately understand how the others play, and who have a long, shared history together that’s now moving past the best years of their lives(professional and personal). Throw in a new drummer, and they act as the backers for Bucky Bennett. The first song they make together is a Top Twenty hit, but the second one is unusual, with a strange riff and tempo, but Cecil doesn’t really think much more about it. But it obviously means something to Bucky, as he goes to great (and threatening) lengths to get it on the record as a B-Side. Ominously, it just has to get out of his head. There’s other strange things about Bucky that Cecil notices as well, even as he becomes good friends with him. There’s something about him, an energy and a way he works his music that makes him a powerful singer – and, potentially, an extremely dangerous enemy. Music has been said to touch people, or even to move them; but to actually, physically mould someone? Or speak ancient, foreboding languages? That’s not normal. As the band’s success grows, so do the ominous signs that become impossible to ignore, and eventually things turn bad to anyone around Bucky Bennett. Price weaves a compelling story blending rockabilly culture with subtle elements of cosmic horror. It has some highly effective and often uncomfortable twists in the plot, complemented by some excellent characterisation that really develops the band and the small cast that orbits around them.
The Rockabilly Singer is deeply impressive, first-rate debut by Maxwell Price, one that combines an innate understanding of 1950s American culture, the Rockabilly music genre, and cosmic and folklore horror to create a slow-burning but incredibly engaging and chilling tale of supernatural and all-too-human horrors. 18thWall Productions have chosen yet another talented author to support, and I am intrigued to see what Mr Price comes up with next. He is certainly on my literary radar, and although we are only a few weeks into the new year, The Rockabilly Singer feels like it’s going to be a real contender for my Best Horror Novellas of 2020.