The experimental musician tackles his greatest challenge yet: a poignant novel about two brothers, set in death metal-era Florida.
Terence Hannum's first novella, Beneath the Remains, grew from a dream he had years ago. This wasn’t the type of self-serving aspirational quote written on a Post-it note and attach to the refrigerator as a daily reminder of an out-of-reach goal. No, this was an aberration, a presence that consumed him until its very existence became all-consuming. It became the catalyst of one of the multi-instrumentalist's toughest creative ventures yet, even beyod his work in Locrian and The Holy Circle: to write serious fiction that stretched beyond the constraints of a short story.
But first, the dream itself. A close family member goes missing. A brother, to be exact. He is lost somewhere in Florida; the swampier the setting, the better. A group of friends form their own search party to find him, independent of the authorities’ own efforts. What’s off about this for Hannum is that he doesn’t have a brother. Through it passed quickly, as dreams tend to do, the scenario stuck with him long after he woke up.
Hannum took the basis of that dream and fleshed it out to include details about his own life. Almost half of the book has some part of his past in there. “It kind of reminded me of when I was growing up and living in Florida,” he tells Noisey. “As I started writing it down, all these memories came back about some of my friends I grew up with and some of them who aren’t here anymore. I started to piece together this rough timeline together.”
Beneath the Remains is the story of two brothers, Spencer and Galen, who move from Virginia to Florida with their mother and stepfather, attempting to adjust to their new surroundings. For Galen, it’s cruising the streets on his BMX bike with friends, but for his older brother Spencer, it’s the unforgiving charge of death metal that he gravitates towards. With the book taking place in the early 90s, references to the likes of Obituary and Death are commonplace (not to mention, the book’s title is an ode to Sepultura’s seminal 1989 record).
Death metal itself is a pivotal character in the novella, used to accentuate the bleak setting and heighten Spencer’s rebellious nature. Metal is an escape for the main characters, a way to cope with being uprooted from their lives and implanted in an unfamiliar place, something Hannum made sure to emphasize. “Even though a lot of death metal can be passed off on a casual glance, I think it also can help you confront some of these transgressive issues about dying and death and feeling out of place and alienated,” Hannum says.
When writing Beneath the Remains, Hannum used death metal as a tool to immerse himself into the appropriate mindset. “I would go back to it and pick up some of the vocabulary, how the guitar tone would make you feel when you put on Cause of Death by Obituary,” Terence says, also noting Cannibal Corpse as part of his soundtrack. Though he grew up more into hardcore and punk, metal was his way of coming to realizations about who he was. “For myself, it showed that you could say and do what you want and express yourself and express controversial ideas and challenge yourself and I think that was definitely the gateway towards realizing that.”
The brunt of the story revolves around Spencer’s sudden disappearance, and how Galen handles this great loss. Interspersed throughout are flashbacks before Spencer went missing, including those from an abandoned house the brothers called “Satan House.” This multi-story clubhouse is another symbol of the hold metal has on them, with inverted crosses painted on walls, heavy alcohol consumption prevalent, and cassettes of the latest the underground has to offer reverberating through the house.
This unholy landmark was based on a house Hannum knew of growing up, a rumor mill of illicit activity and unspeakable transgressions passed from person to person. His experiences in Florida mark the setting for Beneath the Remains not as some beach paradise, but a grimy refuge of shattered promises and remnants of empty lives. “In the back of my head, I would remember a smell or something and this weird juxtaposition where Florida is supposed to be perfect and beautiful and sunsets and that’s where you retired and it’s this utopia,” Hannum says. “Really, like every place, it has these flaws and these flawed people.” These flaws are what give the novella a welcomed depth.
Though Beneath the Remains isn’t as long as a traditional novel—coming in at about 85 pages—the effort it took to the final product was still just as arduous. “I didn’t write every day, but I did two years of actual writing and moving parts around and trying to find the rhythm and what the beginning and ending was going to be and allow it to surprise me,” Hannum explains. After that came the editing process, then finding a publisher, and before he knew it, almost five years had passed. “This book was definitely the challenge to myself of ‘Can I do this? Can I follow these ideas through and make them make sense and tie them all together?’” he says. He was able to persevere through the hardships that come along with trying to flesh a single idea out.
As important as the words are, the cover art is equally as significant. For many, riveting artwork can be a factor in giving a person with no prior knowledge of a writer into giving their book a shot. The same goes with metal, especially in the pre-Internet days when the lack of immediate information made it impossible to tell if that album with the gory cover was actually worth listening to until fifteen bucks was thrown away and a stereo was nearby.
The black-and-white cover for Beneath the Remains is the kind of grim enchantment a band named Dismembered Corpse would plaster on their demo tape with cheap parchment. In the distance, a vast body of water offers escape from a towering pile of animal remains, carcasses stripped of flesh, rib bones jutting through exposed skin. Salvation seems close, yet is far out of reach. The illustration was done by Reuben Sawyer (who has done work for bands like Deafheaven and Pallbearer) and encompasses all the themes Hannum was looking to show. “Reuben put in these nice clues, illustrations in there, like the bicycle, and all of that stuff that I felt clued in some of the elements of the story,” he says with deep satisfaction.
To think that all of this came together because of a dream. Not only did Beneath the Remains push Hannum as a writer, but it allowed him to look back at the music that offered inspiration, and perhaps even guidance, to him as a teenager in the early 90s. Death metal will always have its place in metal’s timeline, which stretches back almost half a century now, but it’s the personal connections listeners make with the music that’s the most invaluable. Whether Hannum continues to incorporate metal into his future writing is uncertain, though he is currently in the midst of writing his second novel (“It’s very different than Beneath the Remains, which is exciting”). When asked about the big takeaway from Beneath the Remains, a long pause ensues before a single, succinct thought emerges.
“I think it’s that everything fades and how you hang on to the things that are meaningful, whether it’s your family or your friends or a city that’s important to you.”
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