In SF fandom Dan Simmons is especially known for the Hyperion Cantos series, and with a reason: those books, especially the first two – Hyperion and the Fall of Hyperion – are truly exceptional. But Dan Simmons is an extremely versatile writer, also known to blend genres in a superb way. And Song of Kali, published in 1985 and Simmons’ first published novel, is a very good example of what I mean here, together with representing something in between horror and fantasy, with more than a touch of literary writing.
Before I start telling about what this book is about, I have to say two things: one, this novel is one of the best I’ve come across recently, and I have read some pretty good ones. Second, it’s dark, nasty, chilling. It’s worth reading, but you might get nightmares. Some of its images still haunt me now. It has certainly given me strong emotions, but shivers too. So, consider this if you’re going to read it: it’s something you won’t easily forget.
Song of Kali tells the story of an American poets, Robert Luczak, that travels to Calcutta to pick up a manuscript, the latest work of a famous Indian poet supposedly dead. This apparently simple case unfolds into a complicated and increasingly bizarre series of events that leads Robert, in his quest of the manuscript, in touch with Kali, goddess of blood and death.
Narratively speaking, the novel belongs to a (long) list of books that talk about other books, existing them or not. Song of Kali‘s quest for the manuscript, and the mystery surrounding it, will figure well together with other, more famous, fictional outputs, such as the one in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, PKD’s The Grasshopper Lies Heavy of The Man in the High Castle and many of Borges’s creations. In this case, as in other successful examples, the fictional object is more than a literary device to tell a story within a story and affects in a dramatic way the life of characters in the main story, with often horrifying results. And this is another point that needs to be clarified; horrors are here, generally speaking, not of supernatural kind – or better said, that kind are not the ones you need to fear. This matters: if it’s a classical “horror” story you are after, maybe this is not the right book, and the only negative reviews I have found of Song of Kali are from people that expected something in Stephen King’s style.
In this specific case, horror stems from the city itself, from cultural differences that separate it from the Westerners’ point of view, to a cruelty coming out of sheer poverty. If there’s a quote that summarises it in two sentence, it would be this one: “Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered.” Descriptions of the places and events are dark and powerful, conveying a distinctive image of the city. There are since the beginning a few disquieting episodes involving Luczak and his search for the book, and setting the tone for what follows. As the story makes progress, it doesn’t gets any lighter. It gets darker and cruller instead, with pages of cringing beauty and candle-lighted temples where Kali idols’ shadows dance in dead silence.
I found out I was not the only one to get upset with Song of Kali. See, for example, this review on SFSite – from which I extract just a quote: “It’s not often that a book really disturbs me. Song of Kali did. This is the kind of book that makes you squirm as you read it. It’s a tale as harrowing as they come. So, if you haven’t had a chance to read this World Fantasy Award-winning novel, take the opportunity and pick it up. Just remember, when you do sit down to read it, leave the light on; you’ll be reading far, far into the night.”
A last thing, for people that love beautiful writing. Simmons is rightly famous for this aspect, and all his books are brilliantly written: this one makes no exception, even though its mastery serves here the dark purposes of the Goddess of Blood.