Jeremy Bushnell’s novel Relentless Melt is a mesmerizing supernatural mystery.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
“Bushnell (The Weirdness) seamlessly blends mystery, urban fantasy, and an exploration of gender identity into the kind of fun and fantastical ride that his readers have come to expect. Recommend to fans of TJ Klune and Kevin Wilson.”
Relentless Melt, my third novel, is a supernatural mystery set in Boston in 1909. As such, if I wanted to make a playlist that would simply set the stage and establish verisimilitude, I could: although the 78 wouldn’t formally debut until 1912, cellulose cylinders and disc records were both readily available for home use by the turn of the century, and the Internet Archive maintains a repository of the Boston Public Library’s collection of digitized music in historical formats. Here are 170 records released in 1909, if you really want to get in the mood.
This stuff is pretty cold oatmeal for the contemporary listener, though: marches, sentimental ballads, the occasional racist showtune. Nobody needs that. So I could take a different approach and load up a playlist with contemporary music that gestures toward the past in some sustained way. We could call this the Peaky Blinders approach. Set around the same time as my book, Peaky Blinders comprises its first season soundtrack nearly entirely out of tracks fronted by men for whom an aura of anachronism is a considerable part of their appeal: Nick Cave (seven songs), Tom Waits (two songs), Jack White (twelve songs).
There are some killer needledrops there, not going to lie, but in the end I didn’t think the faux-verisimilitude approach really served my book any better than the real-verisimilitude approach. Part of why these approaches didn’t work for me is that both of them focus more on the book’s setting—the historical milieu. And while the milieu is fun—who doesn’t love a maze of creepy, narrow, gaslit city streets?—I don’t really think a novel should be reducible to just its milieu. After all, the novel is the greatest vehicle culture has ever produced for representing individual subjectivity—which is my highfalutin way of saying that what a novel is really about, at its core, is its characters.
Let’s look at the central character of Relentless Melt, then: Artie Quick, who begins the book as a department store attendant. Despite this somewhat ignoble retail job, Artie is keen and curious, and she secretly harbors an interest in criminal investigation. Her brother is missing, and so are other people in town: as Artie digs into these cases she gets embroiled in a supernatural mystery. And now you have a vulnerable teenage detective out in that dangerous maze of narrow streets I was talking about above, and the scene feels more alive.
“My God” by Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe
So we can set the stage, then, with this track, pulled from the soundtrack to Ti West’s X. X is set in rural Texas, 1979, a world away from the milieu of my novel, but the arthouse horror vibe that “horror composer” Tyler Bates establishes, all ominous synth textures and piano stingers, does just as well at evoking a spooky New England city. And goth-adjacent singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe brings that necessary human presence, tentatively probing at the gloom with her close-mic’ed wordless vocals.
“Be All Things” by Chelsea Wolfe
It would be wrong, though, to think of Relentless Melt as just a “girl detective” novel, though. Artie doesn’t apply her inquisitive mind only to supernatural investigation, but also the nature of her own gender identity: by the time the novel begins she’s already wearing her brother’s suit, cutting her hair in an androgynous style, and venturing out in the streets of Boston as a young man.
Let’s stick with Chelsea Wolfe, then, for one more track—the spidery quality of her solo acoustic music suits the novel’s tenebrous atmosphere, but this track also connects to these key themes. It’s positioned ambiguously in time (Wolfe has said that she intends it to be “Victorian-era”) and it focuses explicitly on a character considering ways to broaden the potential identities available to them. (Bonus mention here goes to “Have,” a track from 2021 by trans musician Michael Love Michael to which Wolfe contributes guest vocals—it’s a little too spicy for me to include it on this playlist, but well worth checking out if you wanna see how Wolfe’s thinking on gender is evolving.)
“Seven Screws” by Einsturzende Neubauten
I love guitar-fronted rock and singer-songwriter stuff as much as the next guy—well, OK, maybe not quite as much as the next guy—but my heart really lies with the outer extremes of electronic music: monolithic drones, industrial hum, factory-floor beats, caustic noise. If there must be guitar, give me the shredded Dada guitar of Einsturzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld. Given the industrial and post-industrial scene’s long association with transgression and the annihilation of boundaries, it is unsurprising that a hearteningly high number of artists from that scene—emerging and veteran artists alike—have publicly identified as trans or nonbinary. Here, in what can only be described as a coming-out song from 2020, Bargeld sings gleefully about “the sea of possibility”: “I draw myself anew / nonbinary / I, forever new.” Growing up in a time and place that is unforgiving of transgression, Artie might struggle to access that “sea of possibility,” but the search for an identity that a gender-questioning person might use to be “drawn anew” forms an important central pillar of this novel.
“Lady Shave” by Fad Gadget
“Kultes Klares Wasser” by Malaria!
Two more superb songs from the Golden Age of European industrial music (early 1980s), each loosely about the mortifying ordeal of having a (gendered) body. Bonus mention here goes to the banging update to “Kultes Klares Wasser” recorded by Chicks on Speed—more than twenty years ago now, yikes. Moving on!
“The Ghost in You” by Robyn Hitchcock
Artie is joined by a companion over the course of the book, Theodore Reed, a young, unmarried man from a wealthy family. His family has decamped to a diplomatic post in Belgium, and, left to his own devices, Theodore has become a bit of an art weirdo, an aficionado of eccentric stuff—the novel describes him as collecting photographic studies of animal locomotion by Eadweard Muybridge, phénakisticope discs that produce a moving image when spun and viewed in a mirror, tiny reproductions of gloomy paintings produced by the French Symbolists. He makes photographic experiments with a little Brownie camera; he has a wide network of informants and oddfellows; he’s attending the Boston School of Magic and sometimes he “gets a glassy, faraway look in his eye and afterwards claims to have had a vision.”
When thinking of the great art weirdos who have served as my lodestones throughout the years, I always think of Robyn Hitchcock, who I discovered in my high school years (possibly via stray references in 1990s Grant Morrison comics). Hitchcock is a gifted songwriter—his albums are loaded with surreal imagery, an overflowing cornucopia of material to provoke the imagination of any young writer: a man made of balloons, a globe of frogs, a “tropical flesh mandala” and a “furry green atom bowl,” rainy twilight coasts and crumbling buildings, colleges of ice and glass hotels and transparent lovers, light shining through bones. But this terrific cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ 1984 single—albeit comparatively understated—conveys a tenderness and winsomeness that I also see in Theodore. There’s a big heart undergirding his strangeness, and this makes him a good ally to Artie as the novel unfolds.
The novel is full of other memorable characters—Professor Silas Winchell, Artie’s instructor at the Evening Institute for Young Men; W. D. Gannett, the director of the Boston School of Magic; assorted criminal evildoers and colorful rogues. But in a way, time is also a character in this novel. Not merely a character, but an antagonist—and not just in the usual “the characters are up against time” sense. The book’s title comes from a line in Susan Sontag’s On Photography: “all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” And time is indeed experienced in the book as relentless—in these pages it is not only a corrosive force, but as something that willfully, maliciously devours. It’s a diabolical eternal force, and it can’t be stopped—unless you had a suitably talented magician, or even a team of magicians, who could perhaps manipulate the flow of time for their own advantage.
“7-Methoxy-β-Carboline- (Telepathine)” by Coil
So let’s end here, with a track by, well, magicians who sought to manipulate the flow of time. Coil is unquestionably the great occultist band of the last hundred years, and this track comes from a series of sessions in 1998—originally credited to a side-project, the aptly named “Time Machines”—wherein they used modular synthesizers, oscillators, and filters, to create long electronic drone pieces intended to induce trance states and “temporal slips.” Each track on the Time Machines album is named after a drug compound, but in a 1998 WIRE interview, John Balance explains that “[t]he drugs thing is actually a hook we hung it on,” that the true inspiration came from “long ceremonial type music” and the hypnotic states it is known to induce. “We thought,” Balance continues, “can we do this sort of electronic punk-primitive? We did demos with a simple mono synth and we managed it. We sat in the room and listened to it loud and we lost track of time—it could be five minutes in or twenty minutes in but you suddenly get this feeling, the hairs on the back of your neck, and you’d realise that you’d had some sort of temporal slip. We fine-tuned, well, filters and oscillators and stuff, to try and maximise this effect. It was that we were after with simple tones—somehow you could slip through.”
The result is one of the best drone albums of all time, and I like thinking that it belongs to the people who trying to “slip through”—the people who see a better world, with better identities, and know that they can reach it if they refuse to conform to the repressive parameters of the old world and its repressive categories.
“A Better Son/Daughter” by Rilo Kiley
“You’ll be handsome / you’ll be brave / you’ll be handsome and you’ll be beautiful.” Roll credits.
Bonus track: “I Can Hear You” by They Might Be Giants
OK, I started this off by saying I wasn’t going to fill this playlist with a bunch of music recorded to wax cylinders, but I’ll make an exception for this charming experiment by these two, recorded at the Edison Laboratories without the use of electricity.
Jeremy P Bushnell is the fiction editor for Longform.org, and was the lead developer of Inevitable, a dystopian tabletop boardgame (Dystopian Holdings, 2010). He teaches writing at Northeastern University in Boston, and he lives in Dedham, MA.