How about a nice haunted house book? You’ve read dozens, you say? Okay, well how about a haunted hotel? Been there, done that… ? Well, have you read about a haunted luxury mall, one with abandoned levels all the way down to a faux Roman bath that holds a shrine to a god from another universe, and contains, somewhere, a God-killing weapon? No? I thought not.
Kill City Blues is the fifth SANDMAN SLIM book from Richard Kadrey. James Stark has turned the ruling of Hell over to someone else, and is back in L.A. He saved our reality from a cataclysm, but along the way he lost the Qomrama, a doomsday weapon, to Aelita, the mad angel who wants to kill God. Aelita has hidden the Qomrama, or as Stark irreverently calls it, the “Magic 8 Ball” somewhere in L.A. and Stark needs to find it before even more ancient deities, the Angra, chew their way through to our reality and destroy us.
Stark, Candy and Stark’s mostly-a-head friend Kassabian strategize how to get the Qomrama back. Their plan leads Stark to a posh hotel room and an ambush; later, it takes Stark, Candy and sex-star-zombie-hunter Brigitte to the lair of a Tick-Tock Man, someone who makes mechanical familiars for magical practitioners. Brigitte and Candy together are convincingly sexy/scary in this scene, psyching out the Tick-Tock Man. The clues lead Stark to a place he would really prefer never to go; Kill City.
For about ten minutes Kill City was the biggest shopping mall in the country. It was called Blue World Village back then and was supposed to demonstrate peace and harmony for all the countries on the planet through high-end retail consumption.
…then, in thirty head-cracking seconds, the place went from Blue World Village to Kill City when part of the roof collapsed, taking down a couple of walls and a hundred construction workers with it… The only reason the great white whale is still standing is because of all the lawsuits.
The dark, moldy, multi-story complex is the home of ghosts and magical beings, in particular a number of families from Kadrey’s magical community the Sub Rosa who can’t function in the regular world. The strongest of these is the Mangarm family, and Stark has been forced to bring along a guide to deal with them, a guide Stark knows he cannot trust.
From the moment the team enters the mall the book becomes atmospheric, creepy and frightening. The Mangarms are murderous, and matriarch Hattie is a wonderful old crone. As scary as they are, they are downright reassuring compared to the other things that live in the dark deserted mall. Those things have left mummified corpses, skeletons and graffiti that seems to have been written in blood.
Kadrey plants some wonderful and disturbing images in his mall. The most disturbing one is the fifty-foot Christmas tree that is still on the main floor. Once they start exploring, though, they find this strange and wonderful thing:
… The pattern stretches out all round us in a circle thirty or more feet across. It’s a complex maze with a kind of cloverleaf at the center. A labyrinth. A meditation path, like you see in some old churches. The path of this labyrinth is paved with photos of the world outside Kill City. Hollywood. New York. Paris. Mountains. Someone doesn’t want to forget where they came from. The world as a holy relic. It’s funny to think of L.A’s short con streets as some poor slob’s idea of Heaven, but there it is.
As the group penetrates deeper into the darkness of Kill City the book becomes intentionally claustrophobic. I really enjoyed the homage to the gothic horror genre in Kadrey’s choices; a deadly pendulum, a precarious bridge over a bottomless chasm, things you can hear but not see, just beyond the range of your flashlight, a hexed staircase that leads down past strange tableaux on each floor.
Kadrey also has fun with this rotting corpse of a temple to consumerism. Stark says repeatedly that he hates L.A.; Kill City embodies practically everything that makes the town so hate-worthy except maybe the traffic.
Kill City Blues is shorter than previous books and feels more tightly focused, maybe because half of it takes place in the mall. Stark has one primary objective in this book; recover the Qomrama. This is a solid entry in the series, and would make a fine book to read to yourself right around Halloween, or, for that matter, after shopping at the mall.