-Reviewed by Ian Chung–
In Hellhound on My Trail, the first instalment of his Rock Band Fights Evil pulp fiction serial, D. J. Butler introduces us to a motley crew of musicians engaged in a battle with the powers of darkness. Clocking in at ten chapters, the installment makes for a quick but highly entertaining read. Butler throws the reader right into the thick of the action within the first couple of pages, as the titular Hellhound bursts out and interrupts the band mid-set. The pace does not let up thereafter, effectively making Hellhound on My Trail one extended fight scene, albeit with enough tantalising plot reveals scattered throughout to keep things interesting.
This parsimonious manner of expanding the in-story universe actually reminded me of Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series The Dresden Files, in which lead protagonist Harry Dresden, private investigator and wizard, has the misfortune of constantly having to wrestle with the supernatural underbelly of Chicago. A compelling first-person narration has allowed that series to spin out its narrative twists and turns for 13 books and counting. Butler looks set to do something similar with Rock Band Fights Evil, since at the time of writing this review, the next two instalments, Snake Handlin’ Man and Crow Jane, are already available on Amazon and Smashwords (see the series website). The difference here from The Dresden Files is that each instalment appears to track the unfolding story from a different character’s perspective.
In the case of Hellhound on My Trail, that character is the hapless bass player Mike, whose position as the regular guy suddenly confronted by the supernatural mirrors the reader’s experience of the story as it develops. Mike starts off as someone who is just filling in for the band’s previous bass player. A life-and-death fight scene later, he learns the bass player was impaled on the player’s own instrument. A page after that revelation, he also finds out that he has the Left Hand of God on him, and while that means he is condemned to Hell, it is also the reason why Jim, the band’s enigmatic singer, has allowed him to tag along with the band, in the wake of the Hellhound’s completely destroying their gig venue. Jim himself is a fascinating character, who spends most of the story in silence while dealing damage to various minions of Hell. However, it turns out that Jim is one of the Devil’s progeny and he cannot speak because the fallen angels are listening out for him, whereas singing is perfectly fine for him because ‘[t]hey can’t even hear singing…They can’t hear any music. Music is Heaven’s gift to the angels, and when they rebel, they lose it entirely.’
While I really enjoyed the overall idea of a rock band that fights evil because of personal vendettas against the forces of darkness, changes its name for each performance and can never be signed by a record label, there were a few elements of Hellhound on My Trail that nagged at me. One such was Mike’s dead brother, Chuy, whose ghost haunts Mike throughout the story. What started out as a promising plot device (‘He hadn’t seen his brother’s ghost all day, and he needed a drink to keep things that way’) seemed to be sidelined once the supernatural action fully got underway. Even when Chuy pops back up at the most inconvenient of times for Mike (like while trying to escape the spawn of Hell), it is still hard to believe Mike’s tortured feelings regarding his brother.
Another problem was the overall lack of character development. Pretty much all the characters can be boiled down to some individual quirk. Besides Mike and Jim, the band consists of Eddie (the guitarist) who sold his soul to (unintentionally) become the world’s most awesome tambourine player, Twitch (the drummer) who is a transmogrifying fairy, and Adrian (the resident wizard) who is cursed with narcolepsy that appears to kick in whenever he tries to perform too many spells. It might seem unfair to criticise a work of pulp fiction for lack of character depth, but I would imagine there is still a limit to how far the quirks can propel the story without beginning to wear thin on the reader. That said, I expect these are minor issues that Butler will begin to resolve as the succeeding serial instalments flesh out more of this rock band’s gripping story. If Hellhound on My Trail is anything to go by, they should prove to be exciting reads.