Friday, February 13, 2009

Song of Kali (7/81)

I generally think horror stories have one central criteria: scare me. Characterization can be nice, as can dialogue or style, but in a horror novel those aspects should be subordinate to the author's talent at freaking me out.

And whatever its flaws, Song of Kali manages to achieve an almost brutal atmosphere of dread. This dread centers on the Indian city of Calcutta, to which the protagonist Robert Luczak, along with wife and newborn, has travelled in search of the renowned Bengali poet M. Das. That Das has a new poem or that Harper's is wanting to publish excerpts and has funded Luczak's trip would be entirely unremarkable if not for the fact that Das has been dead for nine years.

Though warned about Calcutta, Luczak is not prepared for what he finds when he arrives. The Calcutta in Song of Kali is a nightmare city to rival any in horror, where the combination of teeming humanity and abject poverty yield a place where the violence is barely concealed. So skillful is the portrayal that what violence does take place seems only representative, as if the reader knows that the same terror is repeated countless times just beyond the reader's sight. It is this quality that lends the novel such an oppressive sense of dread, even before much of anything happens.

Soon, Luczak meets a scared and shifty young man who tells what he knows of the poet M. Das, a story too wild to believe, involving members of a dangerous cult that may have their own designs regarding the poem. By degrees does the trap close around Luczak, bringing him and his family into danger, one Luczak seems utterly unprepared to handle.

Admittedly, the novel is not without its flaws. It edges rather close to racism. Its portrayal of the struggle between good and evil seems to draw the line between those two forces right along the Western/Indian border, a point that Simmons chooses to emphasize about halfway through the novel and which is further underscored by having every Indian character be basically obnoxious, treacherous, or both.

Orientalism aside, there are a few other flaws, such as that the main character is somewhat unsympathetic and the nature of the supernatural threat left a little too vague. However, with the strong atmosphere of dread present in the city of Calcutta, it makes for a pretty solid horror novel.

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