In the 1980s a strange phenomenon emerged in the underground heavy metal scene. Dubbed “Satanic metal,” black metal incorporated shrieking vocals, tremolo guitar picking, lo-fi recording, and unconventional song structures. Bands like Celtic Frost, Darkthrone, and Emperor gained faithful followings, and a slew of Norwegian black metal bands inspired other bands and fans in Sweden and throughout Europe.
However, black metal also inspired a few nefarious elements: a spate of church burnings; deeply misanthropic views; extreme anti-Christian views; and even a few murders between rival bands. For a decade or so, these shenanigans were not fictionalized, but in John Wray’s novel Gone to the Wolves, they very much are, and readers who are nostalgic for their head-banging, devil-horned pasts may have just found a return ticket to their youthful mayhem.
Gone to the Wolves is the story of Kip, Leslie, and Kira — three Florida teenagers bound together by their love of bands like Deicide, Cannibal Corpse, Mayhem, and Mercyful Fate. Their story unfolds in the early 90s, when black metal’s second wave began, bands like Satyricon and Gorgoroth started releasing a new kind of black metal music, and corpse paint (a style of black and white makeup worn by band members at concerts and in promotional photos) became a theatrical standard for many black metal bands. Meanwhile, Kip, Leslie, and Kira are simply struggling to graduate from high school, but they have metal concerts to attend and magic mushrooms to consume.
Kira is the stereotypical metalhead: a young woman from a fundamentally religious home in which misogyny is glorified. The heavy metal scene is attractive not only for the freedom it offers but also for the acceptance. The ear-splitting volumes and violent mosh pits offer Kira a release from the physical and emotional abuse she experiences at home. For Black, bisexual Leslie, the metal scene is a playground of musical and sexual exploration. And as for wayward Kip? Well, he is swept headlong into the metal meltdown by association. In this regard, Gone to the Wolves plays heavily (no pun intended) on the stereotypes many heavy metal fans have attempted to overcome in recent years.
Nonetheless, Gone to the Wolves is not just another nostalgic novel about youth gone by. It carries with it a bit of social commentary. Tipper Gore’s infamous censorship campaign, which landed many rockers and pop stars in a moral hot seat, is alluded to by the novel’s trio. The three friends fight “about Hanoi Rocks and Tipper Gore, and the war in Afghanistan and Ozzy Osbourne’s hideous frosted hairdo, which was actually a lot like Tipper Gore’s.” Other social justice issues, like Leslie’s sexuality and race, thread throughout the novel and become paramount conversation pieces as the novel’s setting progresses from the United States to Norway. Readers encounter law enforcement’s systemic racism and homophobic attitudes via Leslie’s run-ins with Florida cops, but in Norway, where a small faction of black metallers were professed neo-Nazis, Leslie recognizes he cannot access the black metal realm the way Kip can because of his sexual orientation and skin color.
Other issues like teenage depression and drug use play a prominent role in the novel. These parallel the harsh, misanthropic views many metal bands expressed musically and thematically in their lyrics, album covers, and t-shirt designs. Occasionally, the three friends make philosophical, yet adolescent, statements like, “That everything wasn’t going to be all right. Not now and not ever.” These statements ultimately juxtapose the novel’s ending, as well as a 2015 study published in the journal Self and Identity that revealed that 1980s heavy metal kids were, in fact, all right. Many were experiencing happy adult lives with thriving friendships and careers. Such groups also attested to experiencing a deeper sense of happiness during their youths — a concept readers may not glean from the pages of Gone to the Wolves.
The novel is also a testament to heavy metal’s legacies and influences. Currently, aging heavy metal originals like Judas Priest’s Rob Halford enter their early 70s and continue touring. Subgenres like symphonic black metal reach mainstream listeners thanks to Spotify and YouTube, bringing the genre to an entirely new listening audience. Kip is the character who best represents this legacy and influence. Throughout the novel, he transforms from being a borderline geek into a music journalist for magazines like Kerrang! He also brushes black leather jacket sleeves with infamous black metal figures such as Count Grisnackh, also known as Varg — Burzum’s murderous front man famous not only for being one of the most influential figures in black metal but also for his murder and arson charges. By the novel’s end, readers see how Kip’s involvement in the scene has ultimately shaped his persona, but it is readers who must decide whether he has been shaped for the better or for the worse.
Gone to the Wolves is the type of novel that requires a playlist. What playlist readers form is entirely their choice. Do they dare spin Bathory, Death, or Mayhem to share Kip, Leslie, and Kira’s concert experiences? Or do they simply rely on John Wray’s prosaic intensity to engage with the characters’ emotional intensity and tumult? Whatever their choice, Gone to the Wolves is sure to grip them and lead them carefully to the fringes of a musical genre stigmatized, censored, and questioned to this day.
Gone to the Wolves
By John Wray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published May 2, 2023