Synopsis: Calcutta: a monstrous city of immense slums, disease and misery, is clasped in the embrace of an ancient cult. At its decaying core is the Goddess Kali: the dark mother of pain, four-armed and eternal, her song the sound of death and destruction. Robert Luczak has been hired by Harper's to find a noted Indian poet who has reappeared, under strange circumstances, years after he was thought dead. But nothing is simple in Calcutta and Lucsak's routine assignment turns into a nightmare when he learns that the poet is rumored to have been brought back to life in a bloody and grisly ceremony of human sacrifice.
I always feel bad when I dislike a novel that is as original as this one. It is pretty hard to find works like Song of Kali, especially in the era in which it was written -- that era being the mid-80s, i.e. when horror fiction was at its peak in popularity. Horror novels were *it* but, sadly, a lot of books written in that genre then were barely more than pedantic Stephen King rip-offs.
If anything, this novel is definitely not a Stephen King rip-off.
As I said, this book is original and was unlike anything else I've ever read. Dan Simmons's first novel is a roaring entrance into the game, and it doesn't really ever let up for the entirety of its 300 pages. I'm a big fan of Dan Simmons -- Summer of Night is one of my favorite novels ever -- but this book, despite its originality, doesn't quite show the skills Simmons would hone only a couple of years down the road. However, this is his first novel and I wouldn't expect it to be perfect.
What, you may ask, is my beef with this novel? Actually, I only had a problem with a couple of things, but those things -- the protagonist/narrator as well as, say, every other character -- are pretty big. This book is told in first-person, so all of the events are witnessed through the eyes of our main character, Robert Luczak, an aspiring poet and staffer for a magazine who has taken his wife and infant daughter with him on assignment to Calcutta, India. This guy, for lack of better descriptive terms, is an arrogant, self-absorbed asshole. And for no reason, too! His wife is calm and put together and tries to help him, but he constantly treats her like a child. He is the sole reason this family of three has horrible things happen to them in India because he consistently does stupid things that he acknowledges is stupid... but he does them anyway. I won't say more because I would hate to spoil anything. '
As well as Robert, all of the other characters are annoying, but they're just annoying because I don't know enough about any of them to feel any other way. They're hastily-drawn ciphers whose only role (in most cases) is to keep the story going. When they suffer, I don't really care because Simmons does not offer enough backstory or details about these people he's brought to the page. I typically enjoy Simmons's characters because they are almost always written in such detail and given so much life... but I guess he hadn't learned how to create realistic people yet. I dunno.
I'm going to keep this review short because I'm sort of annoyed at this book -- mostly because I wanted to like it. It won the World Fantasy Award in '86. It's often touted as one of the scariest novels ever by so many horror fans online. It has such a following... and I don't know why. In my opinion, it wasn't even all that scary. Sure, there were several chilling moments but in most cases the author substituted actual fright with mere gross-out, which might work for some readers... but it definitely doesn't work for this guy. It was a quick read and, like I said, it's highly original. If anything, Simmons uses the location of Calcutta to his advantage, getting all of the mileage possible out of the concept he has created. In addition, the last couple of chapters are pretty bittersweet, mixing horror, fright, and suffering in a way Simmons would often do in his later, bigger novels. The final chapters is where the novel shines most.
All in all, Song Of Kali wasn't a bad read, but it wasn't particularly great either. It was a decent way to kick off my October reading, but I doubt I'll ever go back and read it again. 3 stars.