Song of Kali (Fantasy Masterworks)
by Dan Simmons
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575083073
Date: 21 August 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Since his début in 1985 with the deeply chilling Song of Kali, winner of the 1985 World Fantasy Award, Dan Simmons has risen to become a genre-hopping writer of immeasurable talent. Take a look at this one and it's really not hard to see why!
"The best horror novel in years and the best first novel in the genre I have ever read" -- Dean Koontz
At the beginning of Simmons' World Fantasy Award winning début novel, his protagonist Robert Luczak is something of an innocent idealist. A poet and journalist, he is commissioned to write an article on M. Das, a famous Indian poet who disappeared some years ago and is now rumoured to have resurfaced (or perhaps have been resurrected) in Calcutta. More than this, Das has apparently written a new epic work and Luczak is to negotiate for the rights to publish this in America. It all sounds fairly straightforward – go to India, meet the man, offer the money and reap the kudos, but by the end of Song of Kali, Luczak has journeyed to the very centre of Hell itself and the man who returns with nothing, is a man who has lost everything in the process.
Simmons' really hits the ground running with this hugely accomplished and beautifully plotted first novel. From the outset there is a grim sense of foreboding, exemplified by Luczaks's old friend and mentor asking him not to go – the request is made very simply, without drama or histrionics – indeed it forms the opening sentence of the first chapter and from that moment on, the reader knows that Luczak should have heeded this advice. But of course, he doesn't, instead choosing to make the trip and to exacerbate his vulnerability in the readers mind, Simmons's has him take along his beautiful wife and baby daughter. And so the tension is wound tight early in this novel, but it is when Luczak arrives in Calcutta that Song of Kali begins to turn the thumb screws on the reader and the result is as harrowing a story as I've ever read.
In Song of Kali, Calcutta equates to chaos – the city as evoked by Simmons is a savage, uncontrollable place, aggressive and filthy, unfathomable and alien. Immediately on arrival Luczak is plunged into the foul, sweating heart of the place and we soon learn that his search for M.Das will be far from simple. Instead he is lured further and further into the dark underbelly of the city where he uncovers a chilling story of ancient cults and human sacrifice.
Song of Kali is an extraordinary novel, particularly so given that it was Simmons' first to be published. Any more plot summary and I'd be ruining for you. What strikes me most about it is its freshness and immediacy. If you watch a movie from 1985, you generally have to do so whilst overlooking the things that have dated it – not so with novels and certainly not with this one. Instead Song of Kali is one of those rare pieces that makes the reader feel a little soiled by the end of it. It is a grim, relentless, unforgiving and ultimately compulsive read and it is not hard to see why its author has grown into one of genres most important figures.