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Halloween Special: The Musical Horror Stories of King Diamond
Thoughts on an underappreciated master of horror storytelling
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
With the Halloween season presently glowing darkly all around us, my thoughts and emotions have predictably turned toward shadows, gloom, and the attractions of supernatural horror stories. If you live in a culture that celebrates Halloween, then you probably have your own favorite set of stories, storytellers, movies, food, get-togethers, and cultural rituals that accompany the season. I certainly have mine. And I thought I would share one of them with you, my LITD readers, to enhance your enjoyment of the holiday.
In case you haven’t heard of King Diamond, here’s a precis from Wikipedia:
[King Diamond] is a Danish rock musician. As a vocalist, he is known for his powerful and wide-ranging singing voice, in particular his far-reaching falsetto screams. . . . Diamond is renowned for his dark lyrical content and his story concepts. He is also known for his distinctive shock stage persona (in particular his black and white facepaint).
For the purpose at hand, it is also worth knowing that among heavy metal fans, the name “King Diamond” has been synonymous with Halloween and horror for the past four decades. “The patron saint of heavy metal Halloween,” one prominent website has called him.1
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It was in the spring of 1988, during my last semester of high school, that I first came under the spell of this man and his music. The delivery mechanism was his now classic album, Abigail, which I bought (on cassette, of course) at a music store in Springfield, Missouri, based purely on the attraction of its gloomy, stylish cover, which depicts a horse-drawn carriage manned by two top-hatted drivers, charging down a muddy road beneath a murky night sky. I listened to the album with a friend, sitting in an empty school bus in a high school parking lot at some interscholastic event, maybe a speech and debate contest, whose nature I have long since forgotten. All I really remember about that first encounter is sitting there in one of those tall-backed, vinyl-covered seats, popping the cassette into a boom box, and feeling a sense of awe and delight as the opening track, “Funeral,” rumbled out of the speakers.
This track, forming a prologue to the album’s main action, was a deeply textured piece consisting of creepy narration, ambient sonic gloom, orchestral strings, and a choir. The opening lines, spoken by King in a heavily distorted voice, said, “We are gathered here tonight to lay to rest Abigail La Fey, who we now know was first born dead on the seventh day of July 1777.” The voice went on to describe how Abigail (whoever that was) “must be nailed to her coffin with seven silver spikes . . . so that she might never rise and cause evil again.”
Then the first full track kicked in. It was a pounding heavy metal tune that featured virtuosic musicianship, piercing vocals, and lyrics that told of a young husband and wife arriving at a gloomy ancestral mansion during a summer rainstorm in 1845 and being greeted by seven mysterious horsemen who try to warn them away. From that moment, I was hooked.
A few months later, having just graduated from high school, I bought King Diamond’s next album at a music store in Lucerne, Switzerland, while on a three-week tour of Europe with a group of other teens, accompanied by faculty chaperones from our respective schools. The new album’s title was Them, and it had just been released in Europe, two months before I would have been able to get it in America. That night in my hotel room, I listened to it (on my Walkman, of course) while lying in bed with two tripmates sleeping in separate beds on either side of me. As with the previous album, Them opened with a narrative prologue (“Out from the Asylum”) before the metal music kicked in. This prologue took the form of a mini-audio drama featuring a tinkling horror piano and multiple characters, including a group of evil spirits — the “Them” of the title — voiced by King himself. The story was about a mother and two young children, one of them named King (the narrator), awaiting the imminent arrival of Grandmother. As the album went on to make clear, this elderly family member had been away for some time at a mental institution, though Mother told the children it was “a long vacation,” and was now returning home bearing a horrifying secret.
The fact that I listened to this as a middle adolescent during my first trip outside the United States, suspended in the liminal lifespace between high school and college, lying in an unfamiliar, moonlit hotel room some five thousand miles away from my home, heightened the overall impact immeasurably.
I could say more about my subsequent decades-long relationship with King Diamond’s music. But what I want to focus on here is his skill as a storyteller, which I only recently started reflecting on, and which, as I have realized with some surprise, played a role in my own emotional formation as a horror writer, no less than the books and films that I more commonly tend to think of as my influences.
Starting with Abigail and continuing with his subsequent albums — currently 11 and counting, with a new one due this year — King Diamond has told horror stories in the form of concept albums. This was something of a revolutionary idea in the beginning. Concept albums were of course not new, but to use one to tell a supernatural horror tale certainly was. And King did it brilliantly, both in terms of overall narrative skill and, in many cases, on the level of specific lyrics, both of which he wrote, and still writes, himself.
What I have recently noticed is just how effective many of his lyrics are when recast in prose. In many cases when you read sections of them this way, they are fully as effective as lines from a well-written horror novel or short story. Let me demonstrate with excerpts from several albums.
Album: Abigail (1987)
Abigail tells the story of Jonathan and Miriam taking up residence in the former’s ancestral mansion and finding to their horror that Miriam is gradually possessed by the spirit of the title character, a child who was stillborn 77 years earlier due to an act of violence amid allegations of the mother’s infidelity, and who now seeks reentry into the world. The song “Mansion in Darkness” describes the young couple initially approaching and then entering the ancient mansion at night. Some of the lyrics have a distinctly sophisticated and literary ambience that might make them fit well in a haunted house novel, as in the following:
Riding up the alley in the rain, no lights to show the way -- how could this ever be their home? . . . Everything inside was left untouched, except for what the rats had got, and the dust of time that showed its mark. . . . Armed with candlelight and open eyes, through the dark they fought their way, till every room was lit again. And the house began to breathe. It seemed to be alive. . . . As the candlelight began to fade, and Jonathan said, “Let's go to bed,” the fireplace had ceased to burn. Both were fast asleep before the dawn, dreaming. And they did not know about the shadow . . . the shadow on the wall. It really came alive.
By the by, this album’s origin lends a further literary ambience to its existence. Paralleling the venerable trope from the classic Gothic tradition in which many of its authors claimed they received inspiration for their stories in a dream — including Walpole with The Castle of Otranto, Mary Shelley with Frankenstein, Stevenson with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Stoker with Dracula — King Diamond says he received the basic inspiration for Abigail from a dream. What’s more, his account involves something that sounds like sleep paralysis:
King composed “75 percent of the storyline” after he was awoken one night by an unusually violent thunderstorm in Denmark. He says the creative spurt was “the only time that’s ever happened for me that so much was just done overnight.” He’d written down what he’d been dreaming about before the storm awoke him but, fearful he would forget the musical ideas the memories were inspiring, he brewed a pot of coffee and got back to work. Since his days in [his other, prior band] Mercyful Fate, King had repeatedly dreamed of 13 “cloak-dressed people” that surrounded a bed he was lying in, paralyzed and unable to scream for help. (The vision was so pervasive, in fact, that he turned it into the Mercyful Fate song “Nightmare.”) The figures reappeared in this dream, so for Abigail, he transformed them into the seven black horsemen. He also saw a horse-drawn coach and a child’s coffin in his dream — elements that worked their way into the story.2
Album: Them (1988)
Them, as noted above, tells of young “King,” his mother, and his younger sister, Missy, welcoming Grandmother home from the asylum. As the story unfolds, the listener learns that Grandmother is in communion with demonic spirits, known only as “Them,” which can send humans into ecstasy by “singing” of a supernatural otherworld. In exchange, they demand a gift of human blood, which they consume. But more than that, part of the ritual involves their human partners consuming the blood, mixed into some tea. It was apparently this kind of thing that got Grandmother labeled insane and committed to the asylum. Once she returns home — to a house that is somehow central to all these demonic goings-on, and that she refers to mysteriously as “Amon” — she takes up residence in the attic and resumes her former practices. Moreover, she swiftly brings young King into her secret world, initiating him into her communion with Them. For the source of the necessary blood, she uses . . . his mother. The spirits physically drag King’s and Missy’s mother up to the attic in her sleep each night for a “tea party.” The following lyrics describe what happens next.
On the following Friday as I turned out the light, Grandma came and knocked at my door. “Wake up, King! Wake up, my dear! I am going to show you about the house of Amon. . . . Even your mother is present. We made her sleep in my rocking chair.”
At first I felt really scared, but there was no reason to, as I saw the knife sneaking out from grandmother’s dress. Then it cut a tiny wound in my mother’s little hand. Ooh, it is time for tea.
“A bit of this in a cup of tea is what it takes to set them free. You will hear them telling stories from far beyond this earth.” What I saw and what I heard made me want to stay and learn.
I really hope this dream will never end. It’s hard to describe the kind of feeling that went on in my mind. A paradise. Hearing their stories and feeling their warmth, we laughed with tears in our eyes. From the first cup of tea to the last drop of blood, nothing seemed to matter at all anymore. My mother — but she didn’t exist to me.
Album: Conspiracy (1989)
Conspiracy is a sequel to Them. It finds King living alone in the house (“Amon”) years after the horrific events of Them. He is under the care a psychiatrist, one Dr. Landau, who refuses to let him see his mother, and who, as it turns out, has designs on both her and the house. The song “Lies” describes the doctor-patient relationship in pithy terms that are actually quite neat with their deft characterization of both parties. The music is also cool.
Yesterday I spent an hour. A full hour in therapy. My favorite Doctor Landau. My God, I hate his breath. He asked me questions. That kind of fool deserves a lie. I gave him answers, the kind of answers doctors like. Yes, I gave him a bunch of lies.
I told him all my nightmares were dead and gone. “These days I sleep like a baby, and there never, ever was a ‘Them.’”
Later in the album, the song “The Wedding Dream” contains this memorable lyrical description of a nightmare
I’m caught within a dream. There’s no way out, I can’t escape. If only I could see the light of day, I might escape the dream. . . . Now everything turns to darkness. Deep within, I feel like I'm going blind. There is a light at the end of this starless nightmare. Someone’s screaming, “Help me, please!”
And it’s me.
Album: The Graveyard (1996)
The Graveyard leaves behind the linked narratives, and also the overt supernaturalism, of Them and Conspiracy to tell a new story of mostly psychological horror, though with a tinge of the supernatural at one or two points. At the album’s outset, the first-person narrator has been locked up for years in a mental hospital for the criminally insane. The first song, “Black Hill Sanitarium,” contains the following lines, which, if I encountered them in another context as the opening of a horror story, would grab me and motivate me to read the rest:
I have seen the sickness of all mankind. And as I walk the halls at night, I see the other inmates hiding from my eyes.
Other lines in the same song convey the fact that the narrator has not been healed but driven more deeply into his insanity by the “treatment” he has received in this institution:
I am going down, deep into the black of my mind. I’ve had enough therapy in little rooms. I’m lying down in my cocoon. Nothing here could end too soon. . . . Oh god, I hate those men in white! Oh, those men in white, sticking needles in my mind.
The next track, “Waiting,” describes how one night he kills his nurse, steals her keys, and races through the sanitarium opening the doors to multiple rooms where other inmates are housed:
Running through the empty halls of this forgotten place, unlocking doors that never open. But now I’ve got the key, the key to freedom. And I’m unlocking doors that never should be opened.
He then escapes into the nearby forest. After running for miles, he comes across the city cemetery, where he hides in a tomb and plots his revenge on the man who was responsible for committing him, under false pretenses, to Black Hill Sanitarium:
Six miles I’ve been running through the woods, and now before me, the cemetery gates. I climb the gate between life and death. I walk upon the moonlit graves.
Another song from this album, “Trick or Treat,” features a nicely evocative description of the moon. The use of personification in the lyric also neatly fleshes out the narrator’s mental state, as he rather oddly keeps noticing the moon during a particularly tense sequence in the overall narrative:
The only light inside this graveyard is coming from so high above us. Watching from a blackened sky, the moon is looking on.
I could go on with additional examples, but I think the point is established. King Diamond’s albums, including their lyrical content, are skillfully told horror stories. I hope I may have convinced you to listen to some of the tracks above and maybe explore his work further.
All I will add to round this off are two things:
First, as I consider King Diamond’s influence on my own literary and storytelling sensibility, I find myself wondering how many other contemporary writers of horror and the supernatural may have been influenced by him, even perhaps unawares. Though there is really no way to answer this question short of conducting some kind of formal survey, I suspect the man’s influence cuts a huge path through the contemporary literary horror scene.
Second, here is one of my favorite tracks from any of his albums, and it has no lyrics at all. Instead, it’s an instrumental composed by his longtime bandmate and guitarist, Andy LaRocque. The strong classical influence on the band’s music and LaRocque’s playing, which I haven’t yet mentioned, is clearly evident here. And the song is just a really ominous, moody, Halloweeny note on which to end this edition of Living into the Dark.
Speaking of Halloween, I hope you have a happy one. I’m sure King does, too.
Perran Helyas, “King Diamond: The Patron Saint of Heavy Metal Halloween,” Knotfest, October 7, 2020.
Christa Titus, “7 Things You Didn’t Know about King Diamond’s Landmark ‘Abigail,’” Billboard, September 17, 2015.