Sunday, 10 February 2013

Song of Kali

An American writer is dispatched to India to trace a poet thought dead, but who seems to have made a reappearance with a new manuscript. He takes with him his wife - and cultural liaison - and baby daughter, and becomes embroiled in a cult that reanimates the dead, and has more than a couple of links to the Hindu goddess Kali.

Thus goes Song of Kali, Dan Simmons 1985 d├ębut novel. Before he brought the world The Hyperion Cantos he was terrifying it with stories of an Indian underworld that brought out the worst in humanity. There is a lot of familiar ground that anyone who has previously read his work will notice - literary references, strongly-drawn characters, overwhelming bleakness, and out-and-out terror.

India is apparently ripe material for writers to plunder for their horror, and Kali seems to have found herself being used more often than others. Rememeber the bloodthirsty scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? You'll find there's that common ground here - with cults obsessed with death and running things behind the scenes. It makes sense to a point - Indian culture and religion is alien to those with Western sensibilities, even with the constant modernising Western influence of these days, and it's easy to find something destabilising in the unfamiliarity of the land and its customs. It worked for George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, and it works for Dan Simmons.

As ever, Simmons prose is tight and eminently readable. And on this occasion there's a real intensity to the prose akin to the Father Dure scenes in Hyperion. The intensity comes in no small part from the constant undercurrent of violence that Simmons manages to infuse every scene with. Calcutta promises violence from the word go, and it never loses that level of threat. Add to it the very real horror in the depictions of slum towns, rats running from place to place, children grown up before their time and the admission must be made that the backdrop is superbly painted.

The book always feels an uneasy read, but it's always compelling. There are a few scenes where Simmons skill at making the skin crawl comes through - one forty-page flashback sequence leaves the reader breathless and troubled. And then there's one scene near the end that will haunt you for days - I can't stop thinking about the horror of it. It's not nice, easy reading. It's horror at its psychological best.

But it's not all darkness. Like the ending of Endymion, there's some brightness to be seen. Simmons has that trick of creating a near-relentlessly dark world, but just giving the reader the chinks of light to see a potential happy outcome. Perhaps Simmons is a proponent of the Dark Knight Rises school of giving people hope to induce despair. Whatever he is, it's masterfully managed.

If you're a horror fan, read Song of Kali. The most haunting scenes will stay with you for an age. You may not want to read it again (I don't), but it's a sign that it's done its job. It's a book to get inside your head, and that you'll feel glad to have experienced. Just expect to want to take a shower straight after.