Song of Kali: A terrific horror novel from a future Hugo Award winner

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSong of KaliSong of Kali by Dan Simmons

In Jones & Newman’s Horror: 100 Best Books, Edward Bryant, writing of his choice for inclusion in that overview volume, Dan SimmonsSong of Kali, mentions that Simmons had spent precisely 2 1/2 days in Calcutta before writing his first book, in which that city plays so central and memorable a role. Despite Simmons’ short stay, Bryant reveals that the author filled “voluminous notebooks” with impressions and sketches of the city, and any reader who enters the grim but remarkably detailed horror novel that is Song of Kali will be amazed that its author spent such a short time there. The city is superbly well depicted in this book, and indeed is its most fully fleshed-out “character:” a vile, overcrowded, steaming cesspool of a city that breathes iniquity, mystery and corruption. It is a stunning backdrop for a grisly tale of terror that deservingly won 1985’s World Fantasy Award, as well as a spot in Jones & Newman’s volume.

In the novel, we are introduced to Robert Luczak, an American poet who travels to Calcutta, with his Indian wife and 6-month-old daughter, to do a magazine article on M. Das, an Indian poet who was believed long dead but who has now seemingly, uh, resurfaced and wants his new epic poem to see publication. Luczak and his family undergo a particularly horrendous time during their 10 days in the city, in a story that conflates Kali, the living goddess of death, her maniacal followers, reincarnation, kidnapping, leprosy, rats, morgue scenes, oodles of decomposing bodies, stabbings, drugs, smuggling, festering slums and other assorted nastiness. Simmons treats the reader to two especially horrific sequences: the first, a Kali initiation ceremony, as described by an Indian student; the second, Luczak’s remarkable experiences in the Kali temple and his subsequent escape. Those readers with a squeamish temperament should be forewarned; as Bryant has written elsewhere, “Where Stephen King flinches, Simmons doesn’t.”

First-time novelist Simmons shows remarkable control throughout, carefully keeping the suspense high, the shocks strategically placed, the detail convincing and the Luczak family likable and well drawn. Despite the downbeat proceedings, the author even manages to work in a hopeful ending of sorts; a plea for sanity and reason in a world seemingly more and more dominated by violence and death… the song of Kali. Today, Simmons is something of a big deal, a Hugo winner (for his 1990 Hyperion) and one of the brightest lights in the fields of fantasy, horror and sci-fi. How remarkable it is to see such a sure hand, the master’s touch, in his very first outing. This really is some kind of bravura work.

That said, I must add that Simmons’ grasp is not 100% full in this, his first novel. A close reading will reveal, for example, some confusion as regards dates. When the story opens, it is June 1977, and Luczak mentions that his daughter is 7 months old; but several pages later, he says that she had been born on January 22, 1977. Wouldn’t that make her 5 months old in mid-June? In another scene, in Calcutta in July, one of the characters mentions that Vladimir Nabokov had just passed away (Nabokov died on July 2 of that year). A few Calcutta days later, and another character mentions that New York City had just experienced an historic blackout. But that blackout didn’t occur until July 13! Something funny there! There are a few other inconsistencies that a careful reading will reveal, such as Luczak telling us that his Exeter, New Hampshire home contains nine original oil paintings; some 300 pages later, that number is said to be eight. But these are mere quibbles, really, that only the pettiest of nitpickers (yeah, that’s me!) would notice.

The fact is, Song of Kali is a terrific horror novel that really does deliver the goods. It leaves many outstanding questions unanswered, which may indeed frustrate some, but for this reader, that only added to its air of evil and mystery. I wouldn’t go within 500 miles of Calcutta now if you paid me… a sure sign of the power and effectiveness of Simmons’ first book!

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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  1. This book creeped me right out.

  2. This sounds like an intense and creepy reading experience. I’ve long been interested in Dan Simmon’s debut horror novel, especially as it’s set in India, which isn’t common in the genre. Only problem being – I don’t like horror novels! To be more precise, I’ve never actually read a horror novel, but I don’t think I’d like it. I also have his vampire magnum opus Carrion Comfort (I use it as a giant paperweight) back in Hawaii, but hesitate to try it for the same reason. They’re both in audiobook, so maybe I’ll give them a try someday, but they’re several hundred books ahead of them in the queue.

  3. sandy ferber /

    Well, Stuart, there are all kinds of horror novels, with many subgenres to be found. “Song of Kali” is more visceral horror than psychological, to be sure. If you’ve never read a horror novel before but would like to try one that will not gross you out, try Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” which many readers (including me) deem the scariest horror novel of all time…without the yuck factor! Oh…and at the superhuman rate at which you seem to read, “several hundred books” should easily be consumed in a mere…year or two?

  4. I think it will be more than a few years even at the current audiobook-fueled pace, but I do want to take the plunge someday. First off might be King’s The Shining, actually. Never seen the Kubrick film either.

    • sandy ferber /

      With the exception of one or two short scenes, I’ve always thought that King’s “Shining” novel was more suspenseful than genuinely scary. I’m probably in the minority there, though….

  5. I’ve had this on my reading list for a while. I enjoy most of Simmons work. I used to work with John Scalzi (random, I know) and he told me once that Simmons is his favorite writer of dialogue. Hard not to admire that recommendation.

  6. Amit Khaira /

    You won’t go within 500 miles of the beautiful city of Kolkata ? ( that’s been the name for a long time now ) . Well , that’s your loss but that’s also a very xenophobic / racist comment which is true for this book too since it makes a beautiful place sound like hell and the people living there as monsters . But it’s not surprising. This is what happens when an unfamiliar city / culture is shown through a white man’s POV . Simmons has given Kolkata the “ Indiana jones and the temple of doom” treatment and as an Indian and as someone who just loves the city , it’s offensive .

    • Sandy Ferber /

      A half-jesting, hyperbolic statement on my part. I did not mean to offend. I’ll let Mr. Simmons speak for himself….

    • Song of Kali is a work of horror fiction, not a documentary. It’s goal is not to provide a realistic perspective of a place, but a skewed perspective of a place, a skew that complements the story. Secondly, if you are not a native speaker of English I can understand you may not have picked up on the sarcasm in Sandy’s statement. It’s there. In other words, I think if you paid him, he might go. :)

      • Amit Khaira /

        I was fine with Sandy’s response but you had to come in with your patronising one. I perfectly understand sarcasm , thank you and I also know how badly it translates in text. Please spare me the explanation . Peace

  7. Amit Khaira /

    I thought we were done . But I get it. It’s tough for people like you to let someone else have the final word … hope you get better.

  8. Still waiting for a response to the question, why authors aren’t allowed to portray places/cultures in a negative light for the purposes of fiction…

  9. Amit Khaira /

    And when exactly did you pose that question to me ? If I remember correctly , you made a statement and mansplained the concept of fiction and sarcasm . Plus , I have already made it clear that I don’t wish to engage with you . Please go troll someone else . Maybe login to your Twitter account…

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