Friday, March 1, 2013

FFB: Song of Kali - Dan Simmons

Magazine writer Robert Luzcak travels to Calcutta in search of poetry written by Das long believed to be dead who seems to have resurfaced. Luczak's investigations lead him to a death cult that worships Kali and there discovers the truth of what happened to the poet as well as discovering the insidious hold the cult has on its members. A simple precis of the plot for a book more complex with subtle layers and an arrestingly powerful narrative. I sought out Song of Kali because it appeared on one of those "Best of" genre lists promising a "harrowing" and"terrifying" read. Instead of being terrified I discovered something altogether different within the pages.

Although originally published in 1985 the book is set in 1977 which is key to the story and provides an explanation of the mindset of the protagonist. Luzcak in searching for Das the poet and the solution to a vague mystery is in essence really searching for himself. He is a frustrating character in some ways for he does appear to be extremely naive and often foolish in his refusal to surrender to the inexplicable and mystical events that surround him. He pays a dear price for his Doubting Thomas attitude and stubborn Western beliefs.

This is one of those visceral reading experiences I so rarely have. It deeply affected me. Later I went to read other reviews to see if others had similar experiences. I was taken aback by what I read. For the most part the book was dismissed as "boring" and "uneventful" and "not horror." That the book won a World Fantasy Award may lead readers to expect something that the book does not exactly deliver. The fantastical or supernatural elements are prsent but minimal and while there is more than a fair share of gore for the readers that crave that kind of thing that is not the primary purpose of the book. There are no werewolves, vampires, or brain eating zombies. Isn't there too much of that now? But as for genuine horror on a completely new level I'd say the book has plenty.

Effectively told and intelligently written Simmon's novel tells a story of everyday horror accepted as the norm in a culture that is as corrupt as our own United States. Readers in search of a true modern day horror novel should look no further. Simmons describes a kind of horror that is ignored by most people. Dismissing Song as Kali as "not horror" is akin to an Untouchable being treated as a non-entity by a Brahmin. That's the real horror Simmons is telling us about.

13 comments:

  1. GREAT REVIEW MATE - I'd never heard of this one John but I've been meaning to try Simmons for ages, thoguh I am not a modern horror reader at all - at present I only have a book of his short stories, PARYERS TO BROKEN STONES, recommended by Bev, but plan to get stuck in soon. Cheers mate.

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  2. Thanks, but it's not great, Sergio. It's passable. I was lazy this week. This review was pulled from amazon.com. I wrote it back in 1999. It's more of an impression of the book than a true review or critique. And I had to alter and rewrite most of this for it to make sense here far removed from the other reviews I refer to. Still it's a book I highly recommend for it's subtle power.

    I think most readers who don't like horror per se would find this book vastly intriguing. Even though Simmons won an award for Song of Kali as a work of fantasy the book is much deeper than the fantastical portion which is surprisingly minimal. It really belongs to the crime genre more than fantasy. The cultural exploration of India in the 1970s and the analogies a reader can draw to contemporary life anywhere in the world is sort of brilliant. It's a disturbing book for how Simmons manages to convey the horror of everyday life, not because of the murders or what happens to Das or what goes on in the cult. Also, it's more timely than ever for our country in the wake of the renewed concern for the horror of gun violence.

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  3. I'll echo what Sergio said: This is a great review. It cuts straight to the core of what you got out of the book, and why others should read it. In general, I'm not a great fan of the horror and fantasy genres (as a reader, that is; I often enjoy movies that have a supernatural theme)--but this novel definitely sounds like one that I need to track down.

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  4. I have to agree, this is a great review. I don't like horror, as soon as I saw the word "horror" I thought "oh, no." But still this review makes me want to try it. Very interesting.

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  5. This is a harrowing read with a crushingly depressing yet all too real ending. And its atmosphere is so effective, I've vowed never, ever to travel to Calcutta. I love Dan Simmons' work, he's one of the few modern authors who refuses to be pigeonholed into one genre. FIRES OF EDEN is a more full-on fantasy novel, and well worth seeking out. I was saddened when he quit writing his Joe Kurtz hard-boiled detective novels - that was a great little series.

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    1. Jeff, I haven't read the book but I can guess the reason for the horror it invokes. However, do not think of NOT visiting Calcutta (or Kolkatta as its known now). It's a lovely city with a culture all its own.

      John: I read Simmons' Drood last year and was so disappointed that I have no real desire to pick him up again, your excellent review notwithstanding.

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    2. neer: Drood is (in my opinion) quite awful and much longer than necessary--just to give a short version of what I think of it. BUT Simmons is overall a terrific author and shouldn't be judged by Drood. The short story collection I recommended to Sergio --mentioned above--Prayers to Broken Stones and Hyperion are two of my favorite books ever.

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    3. Neer & Bev -

      This is Simmons' very first novel. It is the only one of his books I have ever read. I've wanted try his other work (especially Summer of Night and its sequel which come highly recommended from people whose opinion I value) but turgid length is a huge turn-off for me. For that reason I am sure I will never read Drood or any of his other monstrous tomes. I know Hyperion is a one of his most lauded books, too.

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    4. Hi Neer! I didn't mean to cast any aspersions on Calcutta/Kolkatta and apologize for any offense caused...it was more of a tongue in cheek comment about the effectiveness of the vivid, hellish atmosphere that Simmons creates in SONGS OF KALI. I'm very interested in India and Indian culture, and it's nice to know that Kolkatta has much to recommend it.

      Bev, I haven't read DROOD nor Simmons' other huge tome THE TERROR so can't speak to those, but his early work is I think of a very high standard.

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    5. Jeff, please do not apologise. Let me assure you that I did not take any offense. I was just a little worried that you might take whatever was served up by Simmons as the gospel truth. I should have known better... but our history of being a colony has made us just a shade wary of the (foreign) depictions or representations of our religious or socio-cultural beliefs.

      Incidentally, if you are a rice-and-fish person or have a sweet tooth than you are going to love Calcutta. Also if you are interested there is a very good book by Amitav Ghosh: The Calcutta Chromosome, which is a mixture of Sci-fi, mystery, and mysticism. Cheers.

      Bev: Thanks for your suggestions. I might give Simmons a try sometime later but right now the horror that was Drood is too fresh in my mind.

      John: As you must have gathered you are not missing much by having NOT read Drood. :)

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  6. John--I, too, am not a big fan of horror--but your review definitely makes me want to give it a try. Plus, I like Simmons in general (Drood not withstanding).

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  7. John, I enjoyed reading your review of this book. I have never read anything by Dan Simmons and I'd like to start with this novel as it is his first and also because it deals with a culture I'm familiar with. Many a story and film have been woven around Kali and I think her appeal lies in the way she is pictured, literally, though the fierce looking goddess is always about the triumph of good over evil. She is probably the most complex and animated of the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses.

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  8. Love some SONG OF KALI love! Thankfully I've never seen reviews that refer to it as boring or uneventful. Over the years I've read it a few times and it remains a favorite, even as I find other novels of Simmons' underwhelming. SONG is a high-mark of '80s horror, unique and disquieting in its atmosphere and final intent.

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