Death Metal Epic I:
The Inverted Katabasis
by Dean Swinford
Atlatl Press, 160 pages, $10
The intersection of death metal and fiction has so far remained fairly murky. Part of this is because writing fiction about death metal is hard and has a tiny audience, where writing fiction that mimics death metal is downright impossible and will send us all scurrying back to our Lovecraft and Poe.
However, Dr. Dean Swinford has given this one a shot with his book Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis. In occult circles, the term katabasis takes on a new meaning of a descent into hell or an occult world beneath this one. Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis describes an early 1990s death metaller dealing with the collapse of his technical melodic Tampa death metal band, and his rebirth first through an alternate musical avenue, and next through his induction into the extreme black metal underworld.
Working in a book store after the breakup of his girlfriend and the hiatus of his death metal band after a promising but ignored first album, David Fosberg is under siege from his record label which wants him to produce the second album now. The problem is that the modern world has eaten up the souls of his bandmates, who are now pursuing “normal” activities and have zero interest in death metal. He should grow up; death metal doesn’t make money, doesn’t get girls or make you famous. Or so they say. Instead, Fosberg pursues an unusual collaboration and applies the death metal spirit to a new form of music.
Swinford’s writing resembles a cross between a toned-down David Foster Wallace and Raymond Carver. The prose is simplified, with little time spent on set and setting, and the first-person perspective in which it is written allows the lead character to state intentions and escape dense exposition. This lets Swinford regulate the speed at which the novel progresses, and he uses this to skim over most of the boring parts. In the final third of the novel some confusion emerges because enough events have occurred that every interaction has many possibilities and the author is trying to show why some must become foreclosed. David Fosberg is a naturally likeable character who resembles many who can be observed in the death metal scene: a fundamentally normal person of above-average intelligence who is bored and frustrated by society, and mired in doubt and alienation.
Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis is structured around its eponymous descent, except that here the descent begins and then seems to be ending, setting the stage for more action before the book ends on a warlike and inspiring note. Liberal use is made of metal history, not just band names but famous historical metal sayings, tropes, common events or observations in the life of a metalhead, and other details that only a metalhead might know. These are presented in such a way that an outsider can read them and think them “quirky” perhaps but not think less of the book for it. The result is a book that reads well, moves quickly and introduces the art form of death metal through stories of its devotees.
Relying on both postmodern literary technique and a much older Gothic sense of dark storytelling, Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis shows metalheads and death metal in a light that may be understandable outside the genre. Within the genre, it evokes familiar history and ever-present struggles, forming less of a travelogue than an introspection as Fosberg attempts to fit his mind around the difficult task of being both alienated and having a place in the world. While it might not occur to me to take a fictional narrative of death metal down off a shelf, I was glad to read this one.