Concept is often reason enough to pick up a book by Dan Simmons, a rule of thumb that extends all the way back to his 1985 debut novel, Song of Kali. Even if Simmons couldn’t competently structure a story, he’d never be accused of inventing a boring premise, the death knell of the vast majority of derivative mainstream fiction. But structure a story he does in Song of Kali, a burbling fish-out-of-water mystery that follows East Coast writer Robert Luzcak to India to verify the provenance of a newly discovered manuscript written by a famous dead poet. Mainstream fiction’s favorite Hindu goddess plays a big role in Robert’s trip, in which he finds himself subject to the whims of every Indian he meets and learns about his dead poet’s connections to the notorious deity.
Simmons breathes in the corruption of a steaming, bloated Calcutta, a tenth circle of hell run by gangs, traffickers, con artists, and the just plain desperate, painting a bleakly nasty picture that makes it hard to understand where he’s coming from, especially in light of one of his most recent books, the politically charged Flashback. Is he sympathetic to the denizens of the Calcutta slums, or is he condemning them from on high? Some may find his political opinions cut-and-dry, particularly given the connotations he makes to Kali’s destructive influence over India and the world at large. Insensitive or unfair it may be, it’s all in service to a story that wants to plant its protagonist in a veritable heart of darkness, and his hyperbolic derogation of the city does just that. Robert’s naivete is shown to work against him as well, and he makes things worse by bringing along his wife and infant daughter.
Simmons is pretty good about writing books that read fast, but Song of Kali is an exceptionally trim book to begin with, featuring some of his most economical writing and straightforward plotting. Speed is absolutely essential to selling the phobic mood that permeates the story. Nothing else can simulate the plunge one takes into a foreign culture, where your street smarts evaporate and you’re at the mercy of the locals, the most attentive of whom have none to give. Simmons writes at the speed at which anything can go wrong, which makes it so distressingly real when Robert gets swept up in a mystery that goes deeper than he could’ve imagined.
Its climax is a frazzling, mesmerizingly protracted sequence that mires Robert in filth and madness. Simmons accomplishes a hat trick by summoning forth body, psychological, and emotional horror all at once, deftly manipulating us like a combination lock, spinning from revulsion to spine-tingling fear to stomach-knotting agony, opening us up to a misery only accessible to the best writers of the genre. Buildup and payoff are both soaked in dread; no matter who Robert evades, he can’t escape the the teeming cesspool Simmons has described. If a Hindu goddess or Thuggee cult members don’t get him, some random lowlife will.
Given such a shuddering climax, the aftermath is a huge letdown. Simmons peters out in the end, as if taken aback at what he’s written. He pulls back from the grue and conspiracies when he could’ve ramped up for one final charge into mayhem. An alternative scenario makes itself obvious to any horror fan, however melodramatic it may be. SImmons opts to retreat instead, for better or worse. He doesn’t succumb to any last-minute cliches, but he does risk coming off as transparently xenophobic. Despite this botched landing, Song of Kali is prime Simmons, still after all these years the best entryway into his works, richly detailed, tensely paced, a melange of genres that delves as deeply into grisly violence as it does highbrow academia. Its brevity leaves you wanting more, and fortunately Simmons has kept plenty busy ever since.