On Music in Writing Whiteout Conditions — Tariq Shah

I stockpiled a collection of songs and bands I frequently found myself worshipping while devising, and sometimes writing, the story of a death worshipper forced to reckon with what he’s becoming. 

I ended up with a roiling armory, a body of music anointed with special and personal connotations to specific places and times in my life, a collection that resonated with, or obliquely generated, the energy of the tale it helped birth.

I think I was drawn to these songs for the raw sense of peril they instilled. Or: these songs were drawn to these characters.

Sunn O))), The Jesus Lizard, Show Me the Body, Wolf Eyes–theirs is a power and an attitude having less to do with the conventional theatrics of heavy metal music and more to do with the reality of the lives their adherents navigate–escaping it, brandishing it, mutilating it. It is, above all things, unequivocal.

The emotional maelstrom is irreducible, something borne somewhere else and dragged into stage light, into the studio, where it becomes something as concrete as a stinging wind, a knife hit, a plane going down. 

Legend has it Sunn O))), while recording their breakthrough album, Black One, for the final song, forced their notoriously claustrophobic singer into a coffin outfitted with a mic and speaker that pumped in the backing track. They then loaded the coffin into the back of a hearse, drove around the neighborhood, and bade him sing. Listening to that track (not present on this playlist, I’m afraid), one would have no trouble believing such hearsay. 

‘Malefic: calls from beyond the grave,’ goes the Wikipedia entry for ‘Báthory Erzsébet, the song in question. 

I wrote this book in the trunk of Vince’s Cutlass Supreme. No music. Only the motor of their silent screaming.


In this way, such music informed what I was attempting to find with my book–fabricate what felt actual. Tell a story the way stories are often related between people with no interest in telling a “story”–that is, directly–in the immediate, embracing the circuitous context–but wait, what you don’t know is, is say this all because–because everyone can smell a rat, or, in the case of literature, a writer’s intentionality, ulterior motive, façade, plan of attack–a writer’s point

At some juncture, it became about the characters’ points.

When people have something to say, they say it, with little regard for its “story-ness,”–the crux is the thing itself, because so long as it sits on their tongue it is burning them, so start and end with that, my shift starts in an hour. 

 An angry young man is much more terrifying than some rotting cadaver in a hockey mask, for the latter is a nightmare reflection of societal anxieties, guilts, and beliefs, while the former is flesh and blood, reflective of almost anything, means nothing grander than repaying an illogical balance of pain, and as such is capable of the darkest of surprises. And most importantly, is what is actually sitting right next to you.

Tommy broke up with me last night. My wife is pregnant. I think I might have hit someone on the drive home. 

–Our narratives’ natural order of operations often lacks the patience, or the interest for, ‘once upon a time.’ Lives are at stake, after all. So: what happened?


As a musician and a writer, my relationship and understanding of rhythm, melody, flow–perhaps even structure–is informed a bit differently than perhaps they are for pure practitioners of either artform.

There was a phase when, given my more percussion-bent grasp of rhythm at the time, I thought writers had no business using the term. That goes for flow, as well. They didn’t know that rhythms were neutral, valueless–just as there are no good or bad colors, no piano keys one should avoid striking. 

There I was, writing syncopations, polyrhythms, metric modulations into sentences, and GASP, being criticized for producing choppy prose and sounds that would strangle a horse if spoken aloud. 

What I’m trying to say is being a musician really complicated my idea of rhythm, flow, etc, and that it took a long time to develop a workable theory of wielding them effectively on the page.

This complicated my idea of what good music was or can be, as well. I have, since I was in 3rd grade, been drawn to extreme music, for both the sensational, vulgar content–how does one wear the label of freak? Proudly–and the virtuosity of its players.

I confess–I thought Nevermind was boring, at first (I was around maybe 9 years old). Too repetitive, not hard enough. And I could play most of Grohl’s beats by 5th grade. Listen to Cannibal Corpse, idiots! Read the lyrics to Suicidal Tendencies’ I Saw Your Mommy… then we’ll talk.


Why dredge up any of this? Well, I thought I knew everything better than anybody. When I think of Vince, with his executioner’s certainty, or Ant, haunting the back wall of some dim funeral parlor, a bit of myself comes up too. 

What did I want, what was going on with me, all those years ago? Above all else, I think I wanted to be right and prove them wrong. I wanted acknowledgment, but I also wanted my inchoate ethos confirmed. And I wanted others to follow me because of it.

So, that self-righteousness, that anger, the hurt of being misunderstood, of being too emotional for logical thought–I see it all over the pages of Whiteout Conditions, and I hear it all over these songs. And I’m glad I remember how that felt. And I’m glad I was wrong.

Tariq Shah, born and raised in Illinois, writes fiction and poetry, and has work appearing or forthcoming in Jubilat, Heavy Feather Review, No, Dear Magazine, ANMLY (fka Drunken Boat), Gravel, BlazeVox, and other publications.

Whiteout Conditions is published by Dead Ink and available for purchase here.