Straight to Hellmouth: When Punk and Magic Meet

There can be fantastic narrative dissonance when conflicting elements clash.

August 17, 2016

Tobias Carroll writes fiction and nonfiction. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his writing has recently appeared in Tin House...

On a brutally hot day in the summer of 2014, I found myself in the cavernous basement of a New York restaurant fancy enough that me ever formally eating there would be inconceivable. The establishment in question was Del Posto, a high-end eatery located in the shadows of the High Line on the west side of Manhattan. I was there to talk with their dessert chef, one Brooks Headley, a guy who had won a James Beard Award for his work creating delectable pastries, was about to release his first cookbook, and would go on to open Superiority Burger, an establishment dedicated to some of the best veggie burgers you’re ever likely to eat. Headley’s résumé extended past the realm of food, though: over the years, he’d also played in fantastic cult punk bands such as Born Against, Skull Control, and Universal Order of Armageddon. It was a reminder that you can find people with a background in punk in the places you’d least expect: lauded chefs, acclaimed authors, and soccer coaches among them.

That moment I’d had in the basement of Del Posto echoed through memory as I read the early pages of Jeremy P. Bushnell’s novel The Insides. After a brief prologue focusing on her in her youth, the novel’s protagonist Ollie is introduced as an adult working as a butcher in an upscale restaurant in Manhattan called Carnage. “[T]he Carnage basement is a huge length of semicircular tunnel, lined in clammy antique tile,” Bushnell writes. As Ollie gets to work, she cues up a playlist that starts with music from Swans11A reference that, given the recent accusation of rape directed at frontman Michael Gira, has bleaker connotations than simply “this is a character who likes punk.” and begins carving. Between this and the fact that, when we meet the teenage version of Ollie, she’s hanging out in Tompkins Square Park—a New York location synonymous with a certain strain of fast and loud music—the character is pretty recognizable as an aging punk in her thirties.

More than that, she’s also an aging punk in her thirties with a long-running familiarity with magic. In the prologue, Ollie and her friend Victor encounter a warlock squatting in a building on the Lower East Side; in the present day, Ollie becomes involved in the search for a knife with mystical properties, including a connection to a portal to a dimension full of unpleasant worm creatures. All of which places The Insides in one of the weirder sub-genres readers can encounter: stories in which punks do magic.

Your conservatory training will not get you far in the realm of basement punk shows, quasi-legal DIY spaces, and late nights at dive bars with dirt-cheap beer, whereas magic, on the other hand, is largely about the necessity of formal training. 

Why is this a thing? It comes down to archetypes. At its core, punk can be said to be about passion over virtuosity—a handful of chords and the right attitude are what matter. The Platonic ideal of a punk song is something fast and simple and direct. Your conservatory training will not get you far in the realm of basement shows, quasi-legal DIY spaces, and late nights at dive bars with dirt-cheap beer. (Again: archetypes.) Magic, on the other hand, is largely about the necessity of formal training. The Harry Potter series of books is, after all, structured to match its protagonist’s education in casting spells and understanding the operation of supernatural devices and concoctions. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians also emphasizes the need for some form of training for its characters to hone their occult abilities. (Though, to be fair, there is a subplot about more DIY ways of picking up magical skills—though that’s described as a more perilous direction.) In books, movies, and games, magic tends to be a practice where experience and patience are key.

All of which is to say that throwing magic and punk into the same storyline is probably going to cause some sort of narrative dissonance, which can be used to a variety of ends. In the case of Bushnell’s book, Ollie’s background in punk is one of several ways in which she’s presented as opposed to traditional power structures—she’s a biracial woman with a chaotic childhood and no inclination to work a traditional nine-to-five job. This, in turn, puts her in both figurative and literal opposition to the novel’s villains, a father-and-son team of right-wing extremists seeking the knife that’s the McGuffin in this book’s plot. Magical devices are portrayed as having the ability to control and confer authority, with horrific consequences—but in placing its hero on the other side of that divide, it manages to be thematically consistent while still establishing a good sense of place along with some unsettling cosmology. It’s one more detail in the creation of a memorable central character, and it helps to shape the milieu around her.

Arguably the best-known narrative to bridge punk and magic exists in a different medium entirely. The DC Comics character of John Constantine has shown up in more realistic settings as well as alongside said publisher’s superheroes and villains in the Hellblazer series. He was played by Keanu Reeves on film and by Matt Ryan on television; he’s also been hailed as one of the handful of high-profile bisexual characters in contemporary comics. And he, too, has a history in punk: during Brian Azzarello’s early ’00s run on the series, a flashback issue featured a young Constantine playing in a band as part of London’s late-’70s punk scene.22There’s another musical connection, albeit one that’s a bit less punk rock, especially viewed from 2016: When he was first created in the 1980s and appeared in the pages of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, Constantine’s look was inspired by none other than Sting.

The manifestation of magic in Constantine’s series has varied over the decades from writer to writer: Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano brought demons and supernatural creatures to the forefront, while Azzarello and Warren Ellis’s runs played out more like crime fiction with a handful of surreal elements. The ways in which magic is put to use have also changed: in some arcs, you might see magical devices, such as a book that can predict the future, while in others, misdirection and illusion were the hallmarks of his trade. And while it’s difficult to come up with a definitive take on a character who has existed in multiple continuities and been written by numerous writers, it can be argued that Constantine’s subdued use of the supernatural later in life echoes his youthful anti-authoritarianism: a deepening of an existing impulse—the early issues of Hellblazer were set in Thatcher-era Great Britain—and its evolution into something stranger, as he found himself pitted everything from violent neo-Nazis to demons with a penchant for draining human life.

It’s also interesting to compare Constantine to his fellow English punk-turned-magician, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Rupert Giles. When the series opens, he seems to be a fairly straight-laced agent of a literally patriarchal organization, the Watcher’s Council, whose members act as mentors to the young women bestowed with uncanny abilities in order to fight evil. As more information about his misspent youth trickles out, his buttoned-down nature is seen, more than anything, as a way of counterbalancing his earlier tendencies towards chaos. Over the course of the series, he ends up breaking with the organization that had employed him over their more controlling and authoritarian tendencies, including drugging the title character and leaving her in a possibly fatal situation in order to test her. The Watcher’s Council’s shifting role over the course of the series, from a positive one to a much more controlling one, prompts Giles to rekindle his rebellious tendencies decades after having suppressed them, to a much more beneficial end. It’s a fairly neat character arc over the course of the series, and illustrates the ways in which the dissonance between anarchic punk and formalized magic can play out in dramatically interesting ways.

The dissonance that emerges from the collision of magic and punk can be as useful as a squall of feedback used judiciously in the middle of an already-intense band’s set.

For some works, it’s the embrace of regional specificity that brings together magic and punk. In Martin Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York, a pair of New Yorkers are swept up in the affairs of a pair of drunk, vomit-prone, and diminutive magical creatures. The music of Johnny Thunders runs throughout: one of the novel’s major characters is introduced pondering the best way to play his solo from “Private Love.” Soon enough, the restless spirit of Thunders himself makes the first of a series of appearances, wandering through the East Village in search of his lost guitar. It feels very much like an encapsulation of a particular moment in that neighborhood’s history, turned ecstatic and strange. Here, too, Millar subverts expectations, making his supernatural characters even bawdier and harder-living than the humans that surround them.

On the (geographic) flip side of that, Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books (collected as Dangerous Angels in 1998) blend magic, a stylized version of Los Angeles, and a fondness for rockabilly bands. Nearly everything in these books feels impressionistic: one major character is called My Secret Agent Lover Man; the plot of Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys involves enchanted articles of clothing, including pants made from a goat; and throughout, there’s a juxtaposition of tender emotional moments with an energy that seems of a piece with Chuck Jones cartoons or Richard Lester films. One chapter of Weetzie Bat ends by describing how the characters “lived happily ever after in their silly-sand-topped house in the land of skating hamburgers and flying toupees and Jah-Love blonde Indians.” The following chapter opens with the title character asking, “What does ‘happily ever after’ mean anyway.”

The fact that the bands these characters watch and play in are on the aggressive side of the musical spectrum might seem to clash with the jaunty tone Block uses to tell these stories. But that can be somewhat deceiving: these are books that are also willing to go into some fairly dark places, with 1989’s Weetzie Bat, the first in the series, including upsetting glimpses of suicidal depression and terminal illness alongside the magic and visions that drive its plot forward. Call it an echo of the way certain punk bands can channel the cartoonish along with the searing: the Cramps, Sex Pistols, and even Fucked Up come to mind, making use of stylized imagery and conceptual devices along with the more gut-level pull of their music. And while Block invokes a larger-than-life sense of stylization, magic and art serve to both bring characters together and distance them from one another. There’s plenty of give-and-take here, and a running evocation of the very punk idea of collective structures. None of the families in these books are all that quote-unquote traditional, but the bonds that connect the people within them are clear and tangible.

For writers who know how to use it, the dissonance that emerges from the collision of magic and punk can be as useful as a squall of feedback used judiciously in the middle of an already-intense band’s set. There are others that run up alongside that memorable energy: Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle, about a man living in Texas who can see the spirits of the dead, is saturated with the presence of Gun Club frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce; Sarah McCarry’s33Full disclosure: McCarry is a friend. trilogy that begins with All Our Pretty Songs smashes together Greek mythology with Seattle punk history, pushing the concept of the iconic into uncharted territory. Washington, D.C., punk fixture Ian Svenonius’s 2012 book Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group used the device of a séance to critique decades of rock history. And whatever casting director thought to fill the role of wizard rock singer Myron Wagtail in the Harry Potter films with the indubitable presence of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker pulled off a nicely subversive pop-cultural coup.44Though it has led to some awkward moments when talking about Pulp with friends unfamiliar with them: “Right, you know the guy who sings in the wizard rock band in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? Yeah, his band in real life was really good.”

Someone stepping out of a basement show and waving a wand can feel like a wrong note or a righteous character beat depending on how a writer pulls it off. Magic, as a concept, has accrued certain narrative expectations over the years; so has punk. But in both forms, finding the right balance between tradition and something more personal is essential—and finding a new way to combine two ostensibly conflicting elements can lead to a more rewarding outcome than anyone might expect. It needn’t break the spell.

Tobias Carroll writes fiction and nonfiction. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his writing has recently appeared in Tin House, Midnight Breakfast, The Collapsar, The Collagist, Joyland, and Underwater New York. His collection Transitory will be released by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016.