Here’s something that’s interesting:
a novel by an author usually considered a short story writer.
a “realistic” novel by an author usually considered an sf/horror writer.
a novel about rock music from a self-professed non-fan of rock music.
Spider kiss (original title: Rockabilly) is all of these, which makes it relatively poorly-known outside of rockabilly aficionados. It’s not in Ellison’s “normal” genre, it’s about a long-gone era of rock music, and as is par for Ellison, it firmly rejects any kind of nostalgia.
It’s also a book that can be effectively summed up in one sentence.
Supremely brief plot summary
Told from the perspective of his manager, Spider kiss describes the rise and fall of 1950s rockabilly star Stag Preston (real name Luther Sellers).
So how is it?
It’s an interesting read, especially when considered in its historical context. Spider kiss was originally published in 1961, and its portrayal of the early days of rock and roll is unmatched. While it is progressive for its time when it comes to issues of race and sexual politics, it’s a little bit outdated now. Written when Ellison was in his 20s and still turning into the curmudgeon we know and love today, it’s an interesting, thought-provoking look at the early rock scene, the music industry in general, and the nature of celebrity. I read somewhere that it’s the only novel to be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I have no idea whether or not it’s a true statement, but it points to the book’s effectiveness at describing the scene.
Spider kiss is really all about Stag Preston. Essentially a combination of the voice and stage presence of Elvis and the personal life /career of Jerry Lee Lewis, the reader gets to experience Preston’s beginnings as a shy, humble country bumpkin and his eventual transformation into an overwhelmingly famous rock star.
One thing that sets Spider kiss apart from other “rise and fall of a star” stories is the perspective. Spider kiss is told from the point of view of Preston’s manager as he discovers the singer and attempts to wring as much profit as possible from him until pop culture moves on. Shelly is greedy and relatively unscrupulous, doing his best to cover up the scandals that Preston seems to cause everywhere he goes, but still ends up being at least somewhat sympathetic.
More than anything, Spider kiss feels like noir fiction. It’s not exactly a crime novel, but the characterizations are straight out of Jim Thompson, with conflicted, self-destructive characters living in an uncaring, brutal world.
It’s a book that’s better for what it says about the time period, and its continued relevance to the modern music industry, than it is for its story or writing. There’s an extended analysis of hipsters that could apply now with little to no modification.
It’s certainly not the best book ever written, or even the best think Ellison has written, but it’s a relatively quick read and definitely worth looking in to.
It’s definitely Ellison, so those who find his style overly self-indulgent aren’t going to like this any more than his other work. Most of the people I recommend this book to aren’t sf readers, so they’re unlikely to have experienced Ellison’s style anyways so perhaps it’s not the most helpful thing.
I recommend Spider kiss to sf readers interested in branching out, since the fact that it’s by Ellison makes it easier to stomache for those with a distaste of the realistic. It’s also a good recommendation for fans of hardboiled or noir fiction looking for something that’s not a mystery novel. It’s also a definite recommendation for fans of books about music and the music industry in general.