There are two main obsessions in my life: books and music. You can usually find me hunched over a book with a pair of headphones slapped securely over my ears. Both obsessions have lead me to wonderful things; I am an avid writer and a truly abysmal guitar player. They’ve also started to mix together in my weird, wormy brain. Books have begun to take on soundtracks of their own as I read them. Words become notes and chords, narrative themes become bands, and soon I can’t read a certain book without having to pair it with an album or playlist, like pairing wine with a specific dish.
Some books come preloaded with music in their pages. Grady Hendrix’s excellent ode to metal, We Sold Our Souls, is all Black Sabbath and Slayer and Metallica. Catherynne M. Valente’s hilarious Space Opera is the very best of glam rock like David Bowie and T. Rex and the glittery disco-pop of ABBA. Science fiction and fantasy books specifically about music are relatively rare, though—it’s hard to distill a purely auditory experience into book form unless you’re actually writing about rock stars or the music business. And yet, some books still demand their own playlists, turning my brain into a Spotify algorithm gone rogue. Some books crackle with the same jangly energy as the Rolling Stones or have the same brittle pop charm as Taylor Swift. Some books dance or mosh or stage dive. Some books are a solo guitar and the reek of bad whiskey and cigarettes, while others thrum with the lyrical rush of a perfectly delivered rap battle victory.
Here is a small sampling of some books that, in my mind, evoke particular bands and music genres…
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir — Carpenter Brut
Gideon the Ninth is an arcane joy, dripping with gothic horror, mystery, and some truly fantastic characters that are sure to haunt your head for the rest of your days. Everyone throws around metal when they talk about Gideon and they aren’t wrong. In fact, that was one of the first things that came to mind when I saw the cover: Gideon’s skull paint is one of the hallmarks of metal and it’s been worn by artists and bands like Mayhem, King Diamond from Mercyful Fate, and Papa Emeritus I, II, and III from Ghost, for decades. A metalhead with skull paint is classic, and I was beyond delighted to see Gideon wear it.
Despite it’s clear metal lineage, Gideon the Ninth’s almost frantic energy led me down another musical pathway to French horror synthwave artist Carpenter Brut and his 2017 album, Trilogy. Synth music is making a big comeback and Carpenter Brut has led the way, infusing his beats with the same kind of flourishes you’d hear in horror movie soundtracks. The songs, mostly instrumentals, are steeped in blood and terror. They reach a fever pitch and dump adrenaline straight into your veins, leaving you with a sense of unease even while you can’t stop bopping your head. You can’t help but envision sleek spaceship hallways with flickering lights and grasping skeleton hands reaching for you in the intermittent darkness. Both Carpenter Brut and Gideon take cues from metal and horror: It’s a match made in bloody, slick, futuristic Hell.
“Turbo Killer” by Carpenter Brut
“Robeast” by Dance With The Dead
“Gloria” by The Midnight
“Graveyard Shift” by Battle Tapes
“Humans Are Such Easy Prey” by Perturbator
Harrow The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir — Grave Pleasures
I was completely not prepared for the astounding achievement in storytelling that is Harrow’s story. There is no easy way to describe the second book in Muir’s space necromancer trilogy: it zigs when you think it will zag and goes in directions you can’t even conceive of. It’s utterly brilliant and the last few pages will leave you screaming in shock. This series has become an indelible part of me now, like new bone marrow changing the blood in my veins—I can’t stop talking about it or thinking up new songs to pair with it.
Where Gideon was a beautiful mix of horror, metal-influenced synths, our girl Harrow is a blistering, blasphemous chunk of deathrock. Deathrock is a genre mixing macabre lyrics and heavy instruments, like goth, only harder. Providing the most perfect anthem for our dearly beloved Harrow is a Finnish band called Grave Pleasures, who put out an album in 2017 all about death and nuclear apocalypse. “Oh happy death, it’s been too long!” shouts lead singer Mat “Kvohst” McNerney, and he’s right. The wait for Harrow the Ninth has been much too long. Trust me, though—it will be worth it. Harrow and Grave Pleasures both have BDE: Big Death Energy. “Let’s make these skeletons wail!” indeed…
“Joy Through Death” by Grave Pleasures
“Sigil” by Gost
“Dead and Re-Buried” by Alien Sex Fiend
“Time Crushes All” by Idle Hands
“I Don’t Want To Be Me” by Type O Negative
Beneath The Rising by Premee Mohamed — Bauhaus
What a thrilling, terrifying novel this is… Premee Mohamed holds nothing back as she dives into the darkness beyond the stars to bring us Beneath The Rising. It’s a globe-trotting whirlwind of a novel, a breathless ride that takes ultra-genius scientist Johnny and her best friend Nick all over the world to try and save humanity from a violent, eldritch evil just waiting for the right moment to strike. It’s a subversive and sublime twist on the best parts of classic Lovecraftian cosmic horror, taking only the existential dread and the cosmic, unknowable monsters and consigning the rest to the dustbins of history. Johnny and Nick are the heart of the novel and their bond of friendship is tested in this life-or-death race against time and sanity. It’s beautifully unsettling, imbued with a creeping dread that sits like a weight on your chest.
That same sense of creeping dread is mirrored in the very best of Bauhaus, one of the very first goth bands from England. Bela Lugosi’s dead, and so are Nick and Johnny and everyone else if they can’t save the world in time. Bauhaus is the perfect soundtrack for this book: it’s sharp and rough and dripping with danger and dread. If Beneath the Rising was a person, they would be wearing one part of an ancient, tarnished BFF necklace and dancing themselves into a moody frenzy to the angular, unsettling harmonies of the very best in gothic music.
“A God In An Alcove” by Bauhaus
“Why Can’t I Be You?” by The Cure
“A Rock and a Hard Place” by The Sisters of Mercy
“She Sells Sanctuary” by The Cult
“Like Calling Up Thunder” by The Gun Club
“Shadowplay” by Joy Division
“Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths
The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht — The Decemberists
If you want songs about murder and mayhem, look no further than those scholarly, verbose folk rockers, The Decemberists. If you want a book about murder and mayhem, well, you need to check out Jennifer Giesbrecht and her monsters. Together they offer an unbeatable combination of sneering, grinning villainy the likes of which your stereo and bookshelf have never before seen.
Giesbrecht’s story is a perfect blend of horror and legend, encrusted with a layer of sea salt and grime. The Monster of Elendhaven has the feel of a particularly nasty sea shanty, sung while sailing cold seas by cold men. It’s twisted and sinister and sharper than a surprise knife between your ribs. The Decemberists are no strangers to tales of revenge and murder and their music melds together with Giesbrecht’s narrative to form a horrifically perfect union. With songs featuring titles like “Shankill Butchers” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” the Decemberists are delighted to oblige your darkest, most feral desires. I can’t help but imagine the titular Monster of Elendhaven with their lyrics on his tongue, the last thing his unsuspecting victims ever hear.
“Down By the Water” by The Decemberists
“Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
“Blood of Angels” by Brown Bird
“One Foot Before the Other” by Frank Turner
“Late March, Death March” by Frightened Rabbit
The Shades of Magic Series by V.E. Schwab — Siouxsie and the Banshees
A series as glorious as Shades of Magic deserves its own siren, and her name is Siouxsie Sioux. V.E. Schwab’s incredible story of different Londons tore me to pieces and all I could hear in my head as I raced to the end of each book was Siouxsie’s voice purring “Oh, your city lies in dust, my friend”. From the glittering, lush beauty of Red London to the vicious and bleak world of White London, Siouxsie chased me the entire way. Born out of the English punk scene, Siouxsie and the Banshees became one of the most famous bands in the ’80s goth scene. Known for her soaring vocals and iconic stage makeup, there’s no greater ambassador for the different Londons than Siouxsie. The band’s songs are both beautiful and bruising, severe and sinuous. Siouxsie herself contains as many facets and multitudes as the novels she’s become paired with in my head—she has a song and persona for each separate London and more. Together they will leave you utterly spellbound.
“Ornaments of Gold” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
“This Corrosion” by The Sisters of Mercy
“Fascination Street” by The Cure
“Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode
“Asleep” by The Smiths
Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan — Kamelot
If it’s metal you’re hankering for, though, then I’d like to introduce you to Wicked Saints. This astounding debut novel hit my little world like an asteroid and my headspace hasn’t been the same since. Obsessed? Just a little bit. It’s brutal and bloody and beautiful. This book is a mood and an aesthetic and I could not be more here for it. It takes place in a fantasy setting similar to Russia and it is one of the most metal books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Spells are activated by blood and two countries are locked in a seemingly never-ending war. There are cruel gods and even crueler people and our poor protagonists must do everything they can to survive while retaining their sanity and their lives. It’s a striking story, and even though I read it in a heatwave I felt the chill of the snow coming out of the pages.
It’s an atmospheric treasure—and so is Kamelot, a metal band that’s been around for decades. They’ve been through lineup changes over the years, but they’re still going strong. Just like the world of Wicked Saints, their music evokes a sense of unending winter and mythic grandeur, with hints of lurking horrors waiting for you in the dark. Wicked Saints has sharp teeth and it goes for your jugular; its soundtrack should do the same.
“Hunter’s Season” by Kamelot
“Don’t Tell A Soul” by Katatonia
“Reverie/Harlequin Forest” by Opeth
“The Fool” by Fleshgod Apocalypse
“Autre Temps” by Alcest
Ruthless Gods by Emily A. Duncan — Batushka
Emily A. Duncan’s Wicked Saints blew my world apart. It’s absurdly good, written with outrageous style and devastating turns of phrase. The second book in the trilogy is filled to the brim with political intrigue, viscerally unnerving eye horror, and our favorite trio of sarcastic disasters doing all they can to make it out alive. A similar disaster is the Polish black metal band Batushka, which has been plagued by its own internal intrigue and usurpations. They begin as a mysterious group chanting Eastern European hymns on top of grinding, unrelenting, bleak metal and then schismed into two different bands, both claiming to be the one true Batushka. A book series as metal as Duncan’s deserves a heavy soundtrack and Batushka, in all its incarnations, delivers in spades.
“Yekteniya I: Ochishcheniye” by Batushka
“Swarm” by Ultar
“Unleashed” by Epica
“Vultures Fly” by Avatar
“Faith” by Ghost
Docile by K.M. Szpara — IAMX
Docile is a glittering, dangerous jewel of a novel, a Hope Diamond of a book imbued with beauty and tragedy. It’s heady and horrifying in equal measures. Underneath its colorful charm lies a dark world of abuse and violence. It’s an aesthetic joy that slides quietly into a bone-deep terror so seamlessly it will give you whiplash. This book knocked me dead, then placed me lovingly in a gorgeous coffin. I loved it so much that I immediately turned back to the first page after I got to the last and started reading again. The relationship between Elisha and Alexander is hotter than anything you’d find on AO3, poised on a knife’s edge that mortally wounds them both when everything begins to tumble down.
The only music that could do this sexy, stunning debut novel justice is the exhausted excess and cold, lonely obsession-driven beats of synthpop, and IAMX is the gold standard of the genre. Chris Corner’s voice is a wounded angel’s cry against the sleaze of synths and the battering bass. This is music for a party that’s gone on too long, for tear-smeared mascara and the hollow left behind when the highs begin to turn to lows. Docile is the book version of an Instagram influencer in a $10,000 dress sobbing in a club bathroom—style and pain and vulnerability all blending into one masterpiece of a novel. This book is an expensive cocktail ringed with Pop Rocks, an explosive and intoxicating delight.
“Sorrow” by IAMX
“Days Before You Came” by Placebo
“Make Me Feel” by Janelle Monáe
“Dead Inside” by Younger Hunger
“Style” by Foster the People
“Dark Allies” by Light Asylum
“America 2” by The Midnight
Stormsong by C.L. Polk — Sleater-Kinney
C.L. Polk’s stunning series started with the outstanding Witchmark and ratchets up the tension as Stormsong slips into the shoes of Miles’ sister, Dame Grace Hensley. What started as a beautiful, atmospheric, almost-fairytale of a book blooms into a sequel that’s more serious, drenched in danger but with a warm heart of romance burning under a thick crust of freshly fallen snow. The story takes everything you loved about the first novel and makes it even better, showing us more of the inventive, anachronistic world of Aeland that Polk has created. It’s everything I could have wished for and more. Grace is a formidable protagonist, and when she meets stylish reporter Avia Jessup the sparks begin to fly.
I admit I went a little anachronistic here, because even though these books take place in a kind of alternative 1920s-era world, I couldn’t help pairing it with a soundtrack of fantastic ’90s-style girl bands. Grace has so much drive and resolve that I’m reminded of the grrrl power that drives the songs of take-charge punk groups like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney—bands with vision, passion, and the power to take over the world in a largely male-dominated rock music world. Grace and Avia would fit right in to that scene, and I love the idea of idyllic Aeland invaded by power chords and thrumming amp feedback.
“How To Play Dead” by Sleater-Kinney
“Glimmer” by Honeyblood
“Moaning Lisa Smile” by Wolf Alice
“Y Control” by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
“Criminal” by Fiona Apple
“The Cat’s Meow” by The Darts US
“Rebel Girl’ by Bikini Kill
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin — The New York Dolls
Listen, I can’t say I’m impartial here. I love books about New York City. I was born and raised there, my father’s entire family comes from Queens, and I haven’t fully shaken my accent even though I’ve been away for years. Finding science fiction and fantasies stories about the Big Apple is always a delight and N.K. Jemisin’s latest book is nothing short of glorious. Calling it a love letter to the city just doesn’t do it justice. It’s an impressive feat of storytelling, giving each borough its own unique character and voice that feels incredibly authentic and lived in. The book is a mouthwatering everything bagel offering hope, terror, and sharp social commentary.
Jemisin understands exactly how special the city is and I think that her work deserves to be accompanied by the very best in New York music. I could think of no band better than the New York Dolls to exemplify what a bizarre, wonderful, stark raving mad place New York truly is. The Dolls were on the forefront of glam and punk rock, inventing their own proto-punk style before Sid Vicious ever thought about hanging a padlocked chain around his neck. They set the tone for music for decades to come and influenced everyone from The Ramones to The Smiths. The City We Became and the New York Dolls, like the city they chronicle and celebrate, are true originals.
“Personality Crisis” by The New York Dolls
“Rockaway Beach” by The Ramones
“Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys
“Run Run Run” by The Velvet Underground
“My My Metrocard” by Le Tigre
“New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” by LCD Soundsystem
“No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” by The Beastie Boys
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey — Orville Peck
There’s an up-and-coming slice of that musical subgenre related to Southern Gothic, one that’s obsessed with murder and rebellion, called “Blackgrass” or “Murder Folk.” Imagine the vibe of folky bluegrass music gone dark and feral…that’s Sarah Gailey’s explosive new novel in a nutshell as well. It’s a good ol’ fashioned horse opera-style Western turned sideways. It’s queer, it’s revolutionary, and it’s deeply awesome. It’s what a modern take on an old western pulp novel should be, grabbing the very best tropes from the genre and forging them into something new and shiny, like two coins laid over a dead man’s eyes. This book has gunslinging librarians, people!!! You can’t get cooler than that.
Every good Western needs a matching soundtrack full of acoustic guitars and songs about vigilantes, crime, and death. That’s where queer, masked cowboy singer Orville Peck comes in. He burst onto the music scene with his debut album last year and his deep voice and dreamy lyrics make him seem like a Canadian answer to Hozier, with a sound more reminiscent of a cornfield or prairie than the Irish cliffs and bogs. His mythic, larger-than-life persona and throwback country sound provide the perfect backdrop to the sunbaked Southwest of Gailey’s latest page-turner.
“Winds Change” by Orville Peck
“Bottom of the River” by Delta Rae
“Hell And You” by Amigo the Devil
“Foxglove” by Murder By Death
“Fingers To The Bone” by Brown Bird
“Gallows Pole” by Willie Watson
“Sons & Daughters” by The American Spirit
Network Effect by Martha Wells — Daft Punk
I can’t help it: Robot music for a robot protagonist. I had to. I don’t think Murderbot would mind. They want nothing more than to obsessively watch their favorite shows and not have to deal with other people, or duty, or honor. Duty and honor will get you killed, you know. In Network Effect our intrepid misanthropic AI is back to reluctantly helping their human associates and they’re going to complain the entire time. Murderbot is a true role model, I swear. This is the first full-length novel outing for the best sarcastic AI since Adams’ Marvin and it completely knocks it out of the park. It’s funny and wonderful, building on the award winning novellas that came before. In my mind, the book can only be paired with joyful, cheesy techno and sci-fi-inspired songs that will make even the grumpiest robots get up and dance. (Maybe these are all deep 21st-century cuts from the Sanctuary Moon soundtrack?)
“Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” by Daft Punk
“Chrome” by VNV Nation
“Homosapien” by Pete Shelley
“Dangerous” by Big Data featuring Joywave
“Fiction (Dreams In Digital)” by Orgy
Savage Legion by Matt Wallace — Bring Me The Horizon
Complex, creative worldbuilding and intense, fascinating characters turn Matt Wallace’s Savage Legion into a brutal, violent delight. I haven’t read anything like this novel in a very long time; it will leave you stunned and speechless. It’s a raw, unfettered portrayal of a world built for maximum efficiency, where only the useful are important. It is an unflinching look at ableism, poverty, privilege, gender, and corruption wrapped up in a blood-drenched box. It’s whip-smart, full of political intrigue, heartbreak, and a plot twist that will punch a hole through your sternum like a cannonball. The fight scenes are incredibly well done and I could not get the song “Empire (Let Them Sing)” by Bring Me The Horizon out of my head as I devoured the novel. It’s a track I always think of as tailor-made for battle: a primal scream from a dying throat, a howl of victory. It’s exactly as fast and rough and brutal as Wallace’s outrageously good novel, and I had to create a playlist of “battle” songs to accompany it.
“Empire (Let Them Sing)” by Bring Me The Horizon
“Beast” by Nico Vega
“Night Witches” by Sabaton
“Drain The Blood” by The Distillers
“Sin” by Nine Inch Nails
Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh — Hozier
Hozier is an dark faerie prince who left his bog in Ireland and stepped into civilization to bring us songs of love and loss. I’m not even surprised that Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh’s astoundingly beautiful novella, became twined around his melodies like overgrown ivy around a trellis as I read. Silver in the Wood is a stunning work, full of quiet moments of sincere loveliness and shocking glimpses of murder and death. It’s supernatural in the ways all the best old folk tales are and it feels strangely ancient, as if it’s a story that has been told and retold for centuries. That’s how Hozier’s 2014 self-titled album feels, as well, and now both works are stuck together in my head. In fact, Hozier’s song “In The Woods Somewhere” is practically the theme song to Silver in the Woods in my mind.
Both are soaring examples of darkly beautiful folk tales, both with elements that hint at something wrong and sinister just out of sight, at the edge of your senses. Each delicate guitar note is like a stab wound, each new chapter in the book bringing you closer to some terrible knowledge. You keep reading, you keep listening, because you have to know just what will happen next…even though that knowledge might crush you. Someone send this book to Hozier: he needs to make a concept album.
“Run” by Hozier
“Blinding” by Florence + The Machine
“Your Bones” by Of Monsters and Men
“Falling” by The Civil Wars
“Meet Me In The Woods” by Lord Huron
Drowned Country by Emily Tesh — Florence + The Machine
There are not words enough in my vocabulary to convey to you how much I loved Emily Tesh’s Silver In The Wood. It was just perfect, a beautiful tale of forests and folklore and the rot hiding in both. The characters immediately took up residence in my head and haven’t left since. When I heard a sequel was coming out I nearly wept with joy. Drowned Country was beyond my wildest dreams, bringing back beloved characters and adding wonderful new ones—there’s even a vampire! It could not have been more tailor-made for me.
The second book has the same quiet beauty as the first volume but adds to its mythology, making it a grander adventure than before. We leave the forests and rush headlong into the sea. My soundtrack for the first novel was pure Hozier, that fairy prince of bogs and moss, and Drowned Country can’t be anything but his counterpart, the Unseelie queen herself, Florence Welch: her soaring vocals like the cry of seagulls, her lyrics dark and cold like the deepest part of the ocean, and threaded with magic and wonder and romance throughout.
“Ship To Wreck” by Florence + The Machine
“Peaceful Afternoon” by Rufus Wainwright
“If Ever I Stray” by Frank Turner
“Heart of My Own” by Basia Bulet
“Through the Roof n’ Underground” by Gogol Bordello
Hopefully these books, songs, and bands give you something to look forward to and to relax with as you work your way through your To Read Pile. If ever there was a time to lose yourself in a new story with headphones drowning out the outside world, this is it. Let me know how you liked these playlists, and what other book and band pairings you’d recommend! Until we meet again, I’ve been your intrepid book DJ, signing off for now!
This article combines three previous posts from July 2019, March 2020, and August 2020.
Meghan Ball is a writer who enjoys playing guitar and spending way too much time on Twitter. You can find her there at @EldritchGirl. She currently lives in a weird part of New Jersey.