Fiction Reviews

The Armageddon Rag

(1983/2012) George R. R. Martin, Gollancz, hrdbk, 18.99, 384pp, ISBN-13: 978-0-575-12953-5


Before he went platinum with his series A Song of Fire and Ice, George R. R. Martin wrote science fiction, and walked away with a lot of awards. He also dabbled in the horror field and apart from his short fiction, he wrote the highly regarded vampire novel Fevre Dream, which he followed up with The Armageddon Rag, written in 1983 and published just when the bottom fell out of the horror market. Horror had boomed and bust, but by that time Martin had his fingers in the Wild Card series and TV shows, namely the revived Twilight Zone series (Editor's note: for which Martin won a Blaster Award) and Beauty and the Beast so he probably was not overly concerned about the lack of commercial success of The Armageddon Rag.

Far be it from me to suggest that Gollancz have re-issued the novel on the back of the success of A Song of Fire and Ice and the spin-off TV series, but here it is, though I have to doff my cap at their bravery in having a cover that clearly looks like the Eye of Sauron, given the rigorous way that the Lord of the Ring brand is protected by mysterious powers who will service a writ on anything mentioning the hairy-footed Halflings or where they might go for a pint of ale.

What is the connection? Well, it might be a blazing eye, but the cover if also the front of a bass drum belonging to the band the Nazgul, legendary rock-act who disbanded when their lead singer Patrick Henry Hobbins, sometimes known as Hobbit, had his brains blown out on stage at West Mesa, killing the spirit of the sixties in one shot. Now it is the 1980s and former activist, and journalist, Sander 'Sandy' Blair is coasting, even if he is a dissatisfied semi-successful novelist, in a semi-successful relationship with a cool beauty, but all that's about to change as he gets a call from the publisher of the magazine he helped to start, but was fired from. It seems that the Nazgul's manager has had his heart cut out (which disproves the lie that he didn't have one) while one of the band's records was playing in the background. Even more spookily, the killer placed his victim on top of a Nazgul poster to perform the bloody deed. Cue an offer to Sandy to write an article about the dead manager and that once-legendary band, and the chance for Sandy to go on a road trip to visit the scene of the crime and meet up with the members of the band one struggling to run a rock venue, another hiding from the past, but living very nicely off the royalties, while the third spirals downwards, wasting his talents in dives to dwindling audiences. But there is something dogging Sandy's footsteps, and the members of the Nazgul. Powers have been released and are forcing the musicians towards a reunion that might just end the world, and it is up to Sandy to save himself, and the three survivors and the friends he revisits along the way on his trip across America. He might be coasting, but his friends have clearly fared worse than him in the intervening years.

The Armageddon Rag consists of twenty eight chapters and each one starts with a couple of lines from a song, many from major artists of the sixties - the Beatles, the Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, the Grateful Dead, etc, etc, which sets the scene for what is to follow, and what you get for your 18.99 is an epic, apocalyptic story that effortlessly sucks the reader in with easy, engaging prose style. My only quibble that seen through glasses of thirty years later from across an ocean, it all seems rather dated, and slightly sentimental and some of jokey comments between characters about being black servants stand out as jarringly non-PC in these times, but despite these misgivings, The Armageddon Rag is well worth a read, especially if you are a Martin fan and want some time off from reading his other weighty tomes.

Ian Hunter

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