Perhaps signifying no direct connection to the Emily Brontë novel, a comment on the Youtube video for Dio‘s One Night In The City off The Last In Line album still prompted a reread of this classic from younger years. Dio‘s cryptic lyrics are cruder than usual on this memorable song and don’t hint at anything beyond the flimsiest sketches of the story’s two central characters. A star-crossed pair of lovers is thoroughly mined territory throughout literature, so it’s a pity nobody ever posed the question to Dio himself about the inspiration for his song. Nevertheless, reading Wuthering Heights again is revealing of many poignant aspects that may have escaped a more distracted attention-span. Also, with respect to heavy metal, it proves a strong case for those who contend that heavy metal is more like romantic art than the mainstream is willing to acknowledge.
Wuthering Heights was written more than two hundred years ago as the sole work of its author who died before she saw her story gain universal acclaim. Considered unpalatable at the time of publishing, the book peels back the skin from its protagonists and unflinchingly inspects all that makes them, and by association, us, human. Far too often, we are prone to lamenting the sad facts of existence, but we conveniently forget that to every act, there is a counter, and all the small gradients in between. Kurt Vonnegut once remarked that the world as it is, is the only way it could possibly exist; the beggar on the street corner, genocide, a heart-rendingly beautiful piece of music and random acts of cruelty or munificence, are all co-dependent parts of the larger equation. While this may seem a fatalistic perspective to adopt on life, it is in fact a recognition of the fact that everything we see around us, good and bad, is equally necessary to our innate condition. We have a tendency to relate only positive connotations to the word “human”, but the word, and its subject, when viewed from the bird’s eye, are inherently unfeeling to moral grandstanding.
A boy gets taken in by a household in the idlyllic moors of Northern England and grows to be a favourite of his benefactor. He develops a lifelong, monomaniacal love for the daughter and an intense enmity with the son. The death of his adoptive father relegates the boy to brutish servitude at the mercy of the son and legal heir, irreversibly setting course for the remainder of his life. What follows is a tale of all-consuming revenge and a twisted, undying love that obliterates all he comes to touch.
There are no likeable characters in Brontë’s story. If anything, it stresses and then hammers down the fact that people are mere products of their upbringing, like lone reeds in the wind, swaying the way the current blows. While we are always accountable for our actions, and though blaming the past for one’s transgressions be pathetic cowardice, in many ways we walk roads paved by our guardians in our most impressionable ages. The boy, Heathcliff, appears a caricature in villainy to the last, and even his abiding devotion towards his soulmate, his one redeeming aspect, gathers a repulsive sheen through the lengths he goes to in her thrall. But even he, being the loathsome creature he is, could have conceivably been someone else in slightly different circumstances.
Brontë’s language is rich and eloquent, and intensely evocative of sights and smells of the English countryside. A Gothic air of dread and the supernatural is fleetingly touched upon, a flourish in style that undoubtedly had influence on the yet-to-be-born Edgar Allen Poe. Nested narrative devices and time frames impart a subtle complexity to the story without compromising its readability.
In its refreshing lack of smarmy self-referentialism, in its implicit trust in its audience’s intelligence, in its soul-baring innocence and contempt for the social norms of the time, and in its courage to expose humanity for what it truly is underneath its veneer of civility, Wuthering Heights shares a spiritual descendant in heavy metal. Too often do we speak of heavy metal in lofty terms without truly meditating on just how different it is from virtually all popular music. No other contemporary form of music tackles subjects as far-flung and disdaining of modern living, or on as intimate a footing with who we are as a species, as metal. Not just as a token reference in lyrics but at the level of composition itself. Structurally, ideologically, and ambition-wise, heavy metal looks back to the past of Brontë and others, and even beyond, for inspiration and a cause to exist. There have been many more years of history than the last twenty odd foppish, politically correct ones; heavy metal has a fine and storied tradition to draw inspiration from.