There is a low hum.
A bit of a hiss.
Like that first few minutes on vinyl before the song starts. You can hear the song churning out low and slow. You are in the dark now. Lying on your floor with those huge headphones on. Around you, the world is still going. You have someone in the kitchen cooking a thankless meal. You have a sour man with sore feet drinking a beer who just wants to be left alone in a rundown chair, threadbare and lumpy. You can still hear the world. The trucks are blazing by your house right close to the highway, and you can hear them now ’cause the music is creeping, the notes so muted you can barely hear them.
But they are there; they have a whispered promise, because your friends all told you this was a good record. You spent the last of your Christmas money on it. You are broke again, but the other kids keep talking about how this is the album. So here you are, breathless on the floor of your bedroom, waiting for magic.
The first hard notes that come to you are bass. The songwriter is just laying this down. Getting a good base coat, like that model you made with your father before he started to hate you, when he wasted all that time applying a primer. The bass hits harder, you feel that chord in your chest. Like the strained beat of the heart attack you will have when you’re 40. Too young to die. Not too young to try. Now the bass seems angry, and you can feel it boxing you in. It is trapping you.
Drums come out like a wildfire you once saw when a bolt of lightning hit a field outside of town. The drums blister the inside of your head like the fire blistered the paint on the road sign. You’re Leaving Small Town, Come Back and See Us. But these drums don’t belong here. Not in this tiny burg. Not in your shamble of a room.
You are realizing now that you are in the dark, the only light the soft glow of the stereo volume button. You stare at it like the pistol in a game of roulette. You stare at it intensely because you are starting to sweat now. You are scared. The music has taken over the room. The music has hold of you. You can feel its humid grip wrapped tight around your body. It’s locking your limbs up. It’s bringing you to trembling. With hate of all things mediocre, you grab the knob and hit the volume as hard as you can. You roll the tumbler. You pull the trigger and when the first yowl of the singer hits your ears, you realize you made a mistake. You are in too deep now. It’s too loud. It’s too much.
It’s never gonna be better than this again. The next time you’re here, you will have heard the album, you will be prepared for it. But the warnings your friends gave when they were in the car after school, bitching about how good music doesn’t make it on the air, were too flat. Those warnings, you did not take seriously. Now you’re here. Now you are riding the edge of a razor of Heavy Metal and you are never gonna be the same.
You thank God your parents gave you your own room when they kicked your sister out. No bratty younger brother is going to come in here and snap on the light. At that moment you know you are a bad person, because even though you will not see your sister until you’re thirty, and she will be pregnant with a stye in her eye, bitching about Reagan, you are glad she is gone. Would have kicked her out yourself if you had known this moment would hit you. If you had known this music would take you.
The first song fades and with the loss of the music, you are panting in breathless anticipation for the next song. Screaming from the start, this song has claws and it grips you tight. Painful in the shoulders, bloody, and it has wings and it flies away with you. It has you in the air and terrified. It has you staring down at your life in disappointment because here, when you are looking down at it all, you know she was not alone when you called tonight. You heard that voice in the background and you recognized it. You can’t compare to that guy. And tomorrow at lunch, she will break the rest of your heart in half. She has been taking a dull cleaver to it for years. Tomorrow, the final blow. The song carries you over all that. It’s a deep pain you will carry with you for most of college.
More songs, more crippling realizations, this album has a diabolical heart. It is a sergeant screaming that first day that you are useless after they shaved your head and called you a pansy. It is the dark heart of your teacher who really thought he would make it in the pros but was cut. He is bitter and trying to fail you. Looking for reasons to fail you. This dark-hearted album is a cruel kid with a BB gun. You are a bird with a broken wing. You are flapping in horror.
The next song breaks upon you like a thief in your house at night. More and more it comes to you. It washes over you as you listen, one tragic horror, one mundane nightmare after the next. When the song drops, like a bomb over innocents, you jump to your knees. You frantically crawl to your stereo, and with hurried, traumatized hands, you flip the album, almost dropping it. The needle falls instead of gently resting, and you hear the record wail out one heart-wrenching beat before the song is on you. No soft hum or gentle hiss this time. The song is in full, deep darkness now, and though you wish you could start it over and catch it from the beginning, you know there is no starting it over. The song has you now. You’re in its grasp.
Tony was a bully you faced in second grade and he never hit this hard. You never felt this helpless when he stared down at you, laughing while you cried. This song is the most hateful thing you have ever experienced, and you are not ready. You are not made of the strong stuff it takes to weather this song. The record keeps dropping on you harder and more devastating than you ever thought possible. And helpless, you can only grip tight to the spiral cord of the headphones and pray for the power to hear the next song.
The song stops like the car your drunk buddy will be driving when it slams into a wall. Your neck will never be the same. And when that car will make that horrid, sudden stop, you will think back to this moment as they load you into the ambulance. This is the song that will be stuck in your head. The next song fades like a road flare sputtering after lighting the area.
By the time the end of the album comes, the record has pulled back to look at you, the music gloating over the ride it just gave you. No roller coaster your father forced you to ride was ever this satisfied after bringing you to tears. When dinner comes, you are late. Your mother did not even call you to the spaghetti. Did not even knock on the door. Now the meatballs are all gone and it’s just sauce. But you barely notice.
All the next day in school you are walking like a shell-shocked soldier. Your friends know, and they are gentle with you. They know better than to ask if you want to go steal a six pack and sit out behind the drive-in, honking the horn during the serious parts and laughing. Because every one of them knows you will not come. You will be at home after school, waiting for the sun to go down on your dingy house. Because all day long, they know you have been thinking about your headphones. And the soft glow of your stereo.
This is what it is like for me to write a dark fantasy novel.
This is what I miss during my time off.
I’m just waiting for the sun to go down.
Jesse is the author of Hemlock and other books.