The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is contemporary horror/thriller author and songwriter Josh Malerman @joshmalerman
Soundtrack by Richard Band, White Lies, Between Music, Allison Laako
You ever seen the 1986 movie Troll? There’s a bonkers scene in which Sonny Bono (the very same) gets touched by the troll and turns into a forest. This scene scared the living piss out of my brothers and I growing up; watching the poor guy morph into an apartment full of plants (and the pain on his face, man o man) had me asking Mom if he was going to be okay. She said yes, he was gonna be fine, and then she laughed because, of course, she was thinking about Sonny and Cher, not “the poor plant man”.
Now, years later, I think about that conversation with Mom and I wonder if horror has a way of freezing time, trapping moments in amber. The Troll soundtrack came out on vinyl recently and I listened to it quite a bit while writing A House at the Bottom of a Lake, not because the music sounds like it’s underwater (that’ll come later here), but because Richard Band’s music has both the innocent freak and the wonder of youth. Cantos Profane best encapsulates this on the album. It’s the song most of us Troll-lovers remember the most from the film. (Recently I had a documentary crew at my house, filming a short about my first book, and I had Troll playing and when Cantos came on, he stepped out from behind the camera and said: “TROLL!”)
A House at the Bottom of a Lake is about two 17-year-olds, Amelia and James, on a first date. It sounds perfect: canoeing across a chain of lakes, sandwiches and beer in the cooler. But the pair discover something below the water’s surface that changes their lives forever. It’s a house at the bottom of the lake.
Although most of the music informed the writing of the book was without lyrics… soundtracks… ambient noise (my cats included), there was a dollop of rock n roll. And nothing seemed to fit the mood I spotted between Amelia and James better than White Lies’s Death from the soundtrack to the movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I suggest you strip down to a t-shirt and underwear and dance alone like alone to this one.
Because A House at the Bottom of a Lake is a first date story, a teenage love song, I gravitated toward movie soundtracks that do both the freak out and the wonder. Because that’s what teenage life is. (That’s what life is like now, too, but let’s focus on the past for a second here, eh?) The whole ‘gravitating’ thing becomes clear after the fact; I can’t imagine lining up a series of albums with a mind that this or that is going to influence the story because really why not listen to something that feels the opposite of your book idea and see what comes of it? But in this case, and in hindsight, it’s clear to me that I was thinking of teenagers in love and the horror of “firsts”: first kiss, first sex, first love. And, in a skewed way here, first home, too. So Troll worked because it came out about the time I was experiencing some firsts of my own. But about halfway through writing the book, my girl Allison discovered a band that changed the whole process.
Yes. They’re under water
Now, before I introduce Between Music and their project AquaSonic, I feel it’s necessary to say that if I were making a movie, I wouldn’t be the type to play a song whose lyrics matched up perfectly with the scene. Too literal. Too cheesy. It just doesn’t feel right to play Mrs Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter if a character of mine is named Mrs Brown and she actually does have a lovely daughter. But when Allison showed me a youtube clip of Between Music I said screw my own rules.
The band has an entire under water show. All their instruments are underwater, recorded under water, played underwater. Hell they even sing underwater. While working on the book I knew the setting was a naturally horrifying place: it’s dark, wet, distorted, cold, and claustrophobic. The only details of the house you see are by the end of your submerged flashlight beams, and that’s through the prism of your facemask. About 60 percent of the book takes place in the submerged house. So to discover a band who has shown us what music sounds like below the waves was, for me, a step deeper than kismet.
It was magic.
Here’s another clip (it’s too good for just one).
Lastly, I wish I had a clip of Allison performing the song she wrote based on A House at the Bottom of a Lake. “The Courtship of Amelia” is a gorgeous, freaky, hit and you’ll have to believe me when I say it’s an earworm. A worm that, I discovered, can live long under water.
Josh Malerman is the author of Bird Box and the forthcoming Black Mad Wheel (May, 2017, ECCO/HarperCollins.) Along with a half dozen published short stories, Malerman is also the songwriter for the rock band the High Strung. He lives with Allison Laakko and their pets (including a brilliant weimeraner named Valo) in Michigan. Find him on Twitter as @joshmalerman and on Facebook.