Monday, October 25, 2010

1986 World Fantasy Award - SONG OF KALI by Dan Simmons

I get the feeling that Dan Simmons took a vacation to India in the late '70s/early '80s and did not enjoy himself. There's a school of thought in horror (I think I got this from a Stephen King essay) that you take a rather mundane fear and magnify it. In this case, Simmons considers a vacation to a foreign country and makes it go about as poorly as possible. He does this effectively, though I'm not entirely thrilled with the results.

Bobby Luczac has a pretty great life at the beginning of the novel He has a beautiful and wealthy wife (who was born in India) and a baby girl, and he's a poet who is actually employed - he works for both Harper's and a small literary magazine. He grabs an assignment to track down an elusive Indian poet thought dead for almost a decade. He packs his family off to Calcutta for what he believes will be a quick and enjoyable vacation, but he immediately hates the dirty, poverty-stricken Indian city. He is also ensnared in a web of intrigues concerning the possibly-dead poet that includes the snooty Indian Writers' Union and a group of cultists to the goddess of destruction, Kali. Because this is a horror novel, these intrigues are bound to take a nightmarish turn.

Simmons has a clear but strong narrative voice, and this novel made me look forward to the upcoming Hugo winner, Hyperion, but this novel never quite grabbed my attention. There are clear mysteries at the novel's beginning, but none of them quite hooked me - the spookiness level remains relatively low until the final quarter of the novel, and then it ramps up a little too quickly. It was only in the epilogue, where Simmons begins to hint strongly about the wider implications of what has happened to the Luczacs, that I really had any emotional response to the book, which is a problem for a horror novel; it's too subtle for the first two-thirds and too much in the final third.

I also had a problem with the novel's slight (unintentional, I think) xenophobia. As I said, Simmons makes exotic travel scary, but he offers little redemption for India. The message seems to be "you think travel to a poverty-stricken foreign country might be frightening? Well, it could be even worse among the poor, dirty, superstitious pagans of Calcutta!" I'm not saying that I think Simmons is in any way racist, but I do think it's unfortunate that a side-effect of this sort of horror set-up is that Calcutta and India come off as so inherently flawed - there's no historical context, just deep, ancient, and foreign evils.

Grade: B-

1 comment:

  1. I tried to politely shy away from calling Dan Simmons a xenophobic asshole in this review. Now that I've heard about Flashback and some of his other post-9/11 work, I know that I shouldn't have been so shy.