This coming Friday, a new film adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic and massive horror novel ‘IT’ will be released in American cinemas. Will it be good? King does not have the best history with cinema. The beloved miniseries based upon the novel, starring Tim Curry as the shapeshifting clown monster Pennywise, does not hold up, and this year’s earlier adaptation of ‘The Gunslinger,’ the first book from King’s also celebrated Dark Tower novel cycle, was an enormous flop. There is reason for optimism though: this latest adaptation is so far garnering excellent reviews, but King’s cinema legacy leaves a bad taste in his mouth and the mouths of his fans.
It’s a shame. King is not only a masterful horror writer. In his quiet and well-observed moments, he’s a powerful literary force. Both ‘IT’ and ‘The Dark Tower’ are intricate character studies and A-grade examples of fictional world building.
Both novels also feature heavy metal bands in their worlds. Early in ‘IT,’ a Judas Priest fan takes the fall for one of Pennywise’s killings. In ‘The Dark Tower,’ Eddie Dean holds a candle for Anthrax and Megadeth. Both bands function as set dressing for an important piece of the character’s backstory. The satanic big bad alluded to in many of his books is sometimes called The Crimson King in a direct reference to Robert Fripp’s proto-metallic prog outfit King Crimson.
King himself is a metalhead himself, even though he’s more well-known for recounting the ’50s rock that colored hils childhood. Maine’s most terrifying export has professed an admiration for Anthrax, who have written many tunes based on his books, among other bands.
Metal reciprocates King’s admiration. Finding songs that reference his work presents little challenge. Picking the good ones is tougher. Many of the best Stephen King metal tracks come from European power metal bands, as opposed to death metal and doom groups. The power metal-king association makes some sense. His books tend to begin with supernatural murder, but fall back on an uplifting strain of good-beats-evil optimism. Horror and metal both subvert and reaffirm social norms.
In anticipation of ‘IT’ I have listed ten great adaptations of King’s work by metal bands, in alphabetical order by band name, below.
Anthrax – “among the Living”
New York’s Big 4 representatives often name drop Stephen King. ‘Apt Pupil,’ ‘Misery’ and ‘The Gunslinger’ inspired “A Skeleton in the Closet”, “Misery Loves Company” and “Lone Justice” respectively. “Among the Living” is the only Anthrax-King joint that is absolutely essential to the band’s legacy. The song originally opened 1987’s Among the Living album, but I’m embedding the John Bush version from Greater of Two Evils. I enjoy his performance more, but listener mileage may vary.
Black Sabbath – “The Shining”
Tony Martin’s first album with Black Sabbath came to be after a nightmarish recording session and the untimely departure of predecessor Ray Gillen. The paint-covered models from the cover even had to be hospitalized after the photo shoot. Gillen was sacked so quickly that Martin didn’t even have time to re-write his lyrics. The actual song doesn’t sound half so evil as the novel it shares a name with. Iommi gave the tune one of his most triumphant riffs, and Martin laid down an uplifting Dio impression. Some of the old Sabbath darkness creeps in during the bridge, though.
Blind Guardian – “Tommyknockers”
Though Blind Guardian singer Hansi Kürsch usually writes lyrics based on the work of JRR Tolkein and similar modern fantasy titans. On this song he invokes King’s lackluskter 1987 sci fi chiller. The novel aged badly (it’s the last book he wrote before getting sober) but Blind Guardian’s interpretation is one of the most mosh-friendly examples of their speed metal period. The King association stuck with Blind Guardian. A false rumor persists that the band took their name from ‘IT’, but that phrase doesn’t actually appear in the book.
Demons & Wizards – “Terror Train”
Kürsch returned to King’s work while singing for Demons & Wizards, his collaborate project with Iced Earth guitarist John Schaffer. The duo partially based their second album, Touched by the Crimson King, on King’s ‘The Dark Tower’ series. “Terror Train” retells my favorite portion of the book ‘The Wastelands”, wherein the protagonists are confronted by a monorail controlled by a malignant artificial intelligence named Blaine. The premise sounds silly in the abstract but compels in the moment, just like the song.
Exodus – “Black 13”
Bay Area thrash institution Exodus put out the unsung-but-great Blood in Blood Out in 2014. That record opens with this pit banger. “Black 13”, a song named after a magical orb also from King’s ‘The Dark Tower’ series (I guess they want to use it as a roulette ball?), blisters, pops and scars over. Odd electronic frosting courtesy of hip-hop producer Dan The Automator sweetens the intro. Really, the song’s all about Zetro Souza’s toxic snot rockets and Jack Gibson’s certified rotten bass tone.
King’s massive bibliography consists of horror novels, short stories, children’s books and more ltierary fare. These songs draw from a small minority of his work. Here’s the top 10 king stories which are not adapted into songs on this list.
‘The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon’
‘It Grows on You’
Gehenna – “Deadlights”
Six songs into a list inspired by ‘IT’ we finally hit a song actually about the novel. Norwegian black metal outfit Gehenna (not to be confused with Swedish drunkards Gehenna) never achieved the notoriety of their Moonfog labelmates Darkthrone and Satyricon, but they did put out a satisfying and groovy single in “Deadlights”. The song takes its name from the unearthly light that is (spoiler alert) the true form of Pennywise the clown. The lyrics themselves don’t stick to King’s premise too much by the end but then again neither did King. All’s fair in psychic warfare.
Metallica – “Ride The Lightning”
“Ride the Lightning”, like most of Metallica’s 80s material, is so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to believe that there is anything about the song which remains unknown. Still, Kirk Hammet only revealed to Rolling Stone that the band took the title from a section of King’s novel ‘The Stand’ in 2014, thirty years after the song was released.
Nightwish – “7 Days to the Wolves”
More power metal. More ‘The Dark Tower’ songs. Nightwish snuck this ballad onto the second half of 2007’s Dark Passion Play, their first album with singer Anette Olzon. Much like the rest of that record, the song comes across like 80% Rodgers & Hammerstein chorus and 20% keyboard symphony. The band based the song on ‘The Wolves of the Calla’, the fifth book in King’s ‘The Dark Tower’ cycle. That book thinly re-skins Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 opus The Seven Samurai, not that any of that swordplay drama survives in the Nightwish version.
Ramones – “Pet Sematary”
The Ramones are not a metal band, but “Pet Sematary” is so good that not including it would be a disservice to readers who may not have heard it yet. This song was recorded for the 1989 film adaptation of the King book by the same name, and appeared on their album Brain Drain. Supposedly King, a Ramones fan, gifted Dee Dee Ramone an advance copy of the novel which inspired the song. “Pet Sematary” went on to be one of the Ramones’s biggest hits. Rammstein later covered the song.
Savage Circus – “It – The Gathering”
Blind Guardian drummer Thomen Stauch departed the beloved outfit in 2005, taking exception to the band’s increasingly progressive compositions. He founded Savage Circus that same year, with the express intention of writing music in the vein of early Blind Guardian material, right down to the pulp fiction lyrical themes. “It – The Gathering”, was originally written to be a Guardian tune, and sounds like it could come from the same album as “Tommyknockers”. Vocalist Jens Carlsson sounds like a dead ringer for Kürsch, although his chorus on this song could be more streamlined. Those intending on seeing the ‘IT’ film and its inevitable sequel should avoid reading the lyrics for fear of slight spoilers.