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Guest post: Songs from The Otherlife by Julia Gray

16 August 2017

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Julia Grey, author of The Otherlife, takes us through the songs that mean the most to her characters.

There’s a lot of heavy metal in The Otherlife. It was the right music for Ben and Hobie to be drawn to, since they felt so repressed in so many other areas of their lives and relished its abandoned, escapist nature. Mostly, though, I’ve written a lot about metal – Metallica in particular – because as a teenager I was passionate about this style of music. The playlists Ben listens to in the cemetery at night are really mine.

There are other types of music that are important in the book – especially church music and one song in particular by Simon and Garfunkel. Here are some of the stories behind my choices.

1. ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ by Metallica

This, from Metallica’s second album, ‘Ride the Lightning’, is one of Ben’s favourite songs. The song appears several times in The Otherlife. Ben uses it for a quote for the history essay that Hobie tries to copy. Then, when Ben is on the way to meet Zara in Ladbroke Grove, the church bell striking triggers a desperate need to hear the track on his beloved iPod. It’s one of my favourite Metallica songs, mostly because I’ve always loved the guitar riff at the beginning.

2. ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ (Words: John Greenleaf Whittier; music: C. Hubert H. Parry)

Ben and Hobie’s prep school, Cottesmore House, is a very formal place. The uniform includes a blazer, tie and peaked cap; teachers command a lot of respect (apart from poor Miss Atkins), and an organ is played for the morning hymns. This hymn marks the moment where Hobie begins to be truly interested in who Ben might be – he stares at the back of Ben’s head for the duration and watches the way Ben shakes his hair. It’s a departure for Hobie, who has never really been interested in another person before. He also enjoys singing the final words – ‘O still small voice of calm’ – as loudly as he can, wanting to break with the tradition of singing them as quietly as possible. A still small voice of calm is what Hobie really needs, though he isn’t aware of this yet.

3. ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ (Words: Sabine Baring-Gould; music: Arthur Sullivan)

Ben hears this being sung in the church at the top of Ladbroke Grove, when he goes to meet Zara for the second time. There are a few different hymns in The Otherlife, even though only Ike and Elsie are regular church-goers. What is important to many of the characters, however, is a search for meaning, and an individual sense of faith. I wanted to bring some hymns into The Otherlife because pagan beliefs and Christianity coincided in Europe from around the 11th century onwards – sometimes peacefully, sometimes not, and there are many parallels between them – the character of Jesus Christ is very similar to Odin, for example.

4. ‘One’ by Metallica

When Ben finally gets to see Metallica playing live – something he’s wanted to do forever – the experience is spoilt by his visions of the Gods, with their urgent requests for him to help them. Having thrown away his last painkillers, he finds himself unable to distinguish reality from the berserks, lightshows and apparitions that confront him from all sides. I chose ‘One’, from ‘And Justice for All’, to be the song Ben hears as he staggers away from the arena in order to throw up, because the lyrics mirror how he is feeling at this moment.

5. ‘Old Friends’ by Simon and Garfunkel

Some of the most powerful songs in our lives are inherited from our parents, whether through their old CD collections or the lullabies and folk songs they sing to us when we are small. Ben doesn’t have too many of these, but he does remember a song that his Dad often sings while doing the washing up. I don’t mention it by name in the book, but it’s ‘Old Friends’ by Simon and Garfunkel.

Ben thinks of this song when he looks at the photograph of himself and Hobie, Halloween 2008, dressed in their wolf suits, and more lyrics come back to him each time. It’s the only song that Ben really responds to that isn’t heavy metal, and it helps him to realise which memories are important to him, and need to be cherished. It’s a very sad song, and I listened to it a lot while I was writing Ben’s sections of The Otherlife.

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You can find Julia on Twitter @ThisisJuliaGray