Now that turntables and vinyl records are back in vogue, let’s hope that backward masking makes a comeback, too.
If you don’t know, in the 1980s, right in the middle of the era of satanic panic, a bunch of squares started playing hard rock record backwards, listening for hidden messages extolling the sweetness of Satan. Teenagers who loved heavy metal, Dungeons & Dragons, and Conan the Barbarian also loved to abuse their sisters’ record players trying to hear these secret messages but, of course, there wasn’t really anything there.
Like a backward masked record, John Darnielle’s debut novel, Wolf in White Van, spins out in reverse telling the story of Sean Phillips. Thirty-years old, disfigured by self-inflicted teen-aged gunshot wound, and a virtual shut-in, Sean’s life revolves around Trace Italian, a play-by-mail role-playing game in which his customers explore an imaginary post-apocalyptic America in search of a safe haven. Like an elaborate, slow-paced Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, Trace Italian offers its players scenarios and choices and each choice determines the next scenario. Sean has made the game his entire life, his source of income, and his escape from a monotonous life of physical and psychological agony.
Some of the players have escaped into the game as well, taking it from the imaginary into the real, putting their lives at risk, leading Sean to question the purpose of Trace Italian. Wolf in White Van works backwards through Sean’s life, revealing his innermost thoughts, culminating in the disfiguring event that has shaped his adult life.
Just like the secret backwards recordings we never learn the true message of Sean’s life. We hear the facts, parsed out in clues through Sean’s memories, but we never learn the meaning. Why did he make such terrible choices? We don’t know and Sean doesn’t know. Maybe that’s the point. Sometimes answers are just out of reach. As Sean says about the ending of Trace Italian:
“A player can get close enough to see it: it shines in the new deserts of Kansas, gleaming in the sun or starkly rising from the winter cold. … Technically it’s possible to get to the last room in the final chamber of the Trace Italian, but no one will ever do it. No one will ever live that long.”