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!


  • Sandy Ferber

    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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