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Dan Simmons is one of my go-to authors when I want meaty horror. The subject doesn’t matter. Reading him is like getting in a car with a friend and knowing you’re going to have a good time no matter where you go. It’s watching a Hitchcock film or putting on the Misfits. He’s one of my favorite authors. That said, the substantial heft of his books calls for some commitment.

Song of Kali, published in 1985, was his first published novel. It’s delightfully short, but in no way is this an easy read. If you’re in the mood for something dark and bone-chillingly nasty, here you go.

songofkali

The story is set in Kolkata, Calcutta at the time it was written. Aside from Rabindranath Tagore’s stories, I’ve never read anything set in this city but my boyfriend’s family is from there so I’m basically an expert. He actually grabbed the book from my pile when I told him where it was set, but I got it back the next day as he took quick offense to the way Kolkata’s depicted. I don’t blame him. This is a fascinating book, though were it written by any other author I probably would’ve put it down, too.

Poet and publisher Robert Luczak is sent to Calcutta on a magazine assignment to retrieve a supposedly new manuscript from a supposedly dead poet. He brings along his Indian-American wife and their baby girl. It all seems very simple and they expect to fly back in a few short days, manuscript in hand.

Luczak’s efforts to gain possession of the manuscript and gather fodder for his article lead him on a convoluted trail from the company of an uppity writing society to members of the secret cult of Kali, goddess of death and destruction. Soon we find ourselves trapped in a story within a story. If you put yourself in Luczak’s shoes, listening to a stranger’s horrifying, seemingly irrelevant account of a secret barbaric cult in a sweltering city flanked by extreme poverty in the midst of monsoon season, you understand why he retreats to a presumably safe place of utter disbelief and thanks but this has nothing to do with me reaction.

This story just keeps getting darker and never went where I expected it to. The source of the horror lingers. Ghosts and monsters are fun and slashers are good times because they’re all absurd. The good ones come from a real place, but on the surface they roll around in bloody absurdity. You know it and the author knows it and so the ride can go anywhere. In Song of Kali, the true horror isn’t what moves in the shadows or a city’s continuous assault on the senses. It’s what people do to people, our capacity for violence.

Simmons wrote a novel in which a sprawling city and a fearful deity are characters, but the monsters are human. Where I anticipated a more heightened reality, the story remains grounded in every dirty minute. The actions Luczak takes to achieve his purpose dig him deeper and deeper. Normally, I want more awareness from a smart protagonist, but Simmons cleverly immerses him in the haze of being in a foreign land. There’s not a full moment of lucid orientation until suddenly there is and then you don’t want it but it hammers you anyway.

I’m glad I didn’t put this book down, but it is not a good time. It’s nothing like Stephen King or even the other Dan Simmons books I’ve read. One of the reasons I love horror is for it the breadth of its scope. This one goes to the dark corners and pulls out the things that scare us so much we don’t want to think about them let alone spend hours holding them close to our faces, reading every detail in teeny tiny text – my copy is old.

Unfortunately, Simmons disregards the nuances of Kali’s dual nature – death and rebirth, fierceness and compassion. Things we naturally think about this time of year as the trees fade so beautifully around us and lifelong traditions feed the urge to do something new.

I meant to write about this book sooner, but we were busy last week making food and having people over to celebrate Kali Puja and Diwali along with millions or others around the world. Pray, eat, party.

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