Published in Necro’s Big Book of Blasphemy (which is up for Best Collection) “Norwegian Woods” is set within Norway’s black metal scene. Its main character is a musician who styles himself Maggotis, and who forms one quarter of a band called Pesta’s Reign. Notorious after a (botched) arson attempt on a cathedral, the band eagerly soaks up the diabolical imagery and anti-Christian extremism that are part and parcel of Norwegian black metal.
The frontman of Pesta’s Reign, Vredesbyrd, is keen to take things further and has begun to act as something of a cult leader. While Maggotis remains uncertain , the other two members – Blakengard and Lord Rectum – have fallen under Vredesbyrd’s sway. To the band leader, devilish iconography is more than just an aesthetic: through a sacrificial rite involving goats and groupies, he is able to tap into supernatural forces of the darkest stripe.
“Norwegian Woods” makes a point out of portraying the squalor behind the corpse-painted theatrics of the metal scene. The infamous band is ultimately just four youngsters having trouble making ends meet, with Maggotis washing dishes in a kebab restaurant, driving a battered twenty-year-old car and sleeping on a couch after being kicked out by his mum. Then, having stripped away the mystique of metal, the story promptly proceeds to build it up again.
The character of Vredesbyrd embodies the black metal aesthetic in all of its unabashed excess, blurring the line between extreme showmanship and devoted coltishness (or kvltishness?):
When Pesta’s Reign formed, the band performed a blood vow, slicing their hands open, comingling their blood, and promising that they not only be the most evil band in the world, but also that no member could ever leave or be forced out—only death would allow a band member to depart from Pesta’s Reign.
Vredesbyrd was the band leader. He had formed Pesta’s Reign, named the band and wrote all the lyrics; the subject matter always focused on Satan, war, anti-Religion and pure hate.
He didn’t want to ever tour, do interviews, or play the record label game. It was beneath him and didn’t keep things true, and he explained to his bandmates that they always had to adhere to the true ideology of black metal and never allow it to be diluted. They must be one with Satan and carry their message through their music—the more people they reached, the better, but only if done without selling out.
When Vredesbyrd begins carrying out ritual sacrifices and performing grisly dark magic, “Norwegian Woods” makes literal the satanic themes of black metal music. It would have been easy for the story to become the literary equivalent of an album cover, but as it happens, author Jeremy Wagner turns out to have something more analytical in mind.
“Norwegian Woods” shows both an abiding fondness for the aesthetic of black metal, and an awareness of the scene’s less palatable aspects. The story namechecks real-life murders committed by musicians Bård “Faust” Eithen and Varg Vikernes, and also touches upon the movement’s associations with white supremacy when Maggotis mentions having attacked a Jewish man for wearing a yarmulke, but stresses that “I’m not a fascist, y’know. It’s just about religion”. Maggotis himself, introduced as something of a likeable faker, becomes far less sympathetic when we eventually learn his history of assault and rape.
The story frames its main conflict as one between black metal and Christianity, and its fondness for the former does not prevent it from treating the latter with respect. The narrative begins in medias res as a repentant Maggotis seeking the spiritual aid of a priest who had previously campaigned vociferously against black metal; although it would have been easy to cast this clergyman as a figure of mockery, the story instead makes him its most dignified character. Indeed, the priest’s backdrop of medieval church architecture (“like something out of a Tolkien book”) becomes a worthy aesthetic opponent to the morbid iconography of black metal.
Metal music and its various subgenres provide plenty of material for horror fiction, but taken at face value, metal imagery/ all too easily becomes superficial and adolescent. Wagner realises this, and avoids such a pitfall with a story that is thoughtful, wry – and still metal as all hell.