Song of Kali is the first novel by American author Dan Simmons, Simmons has become over the last couple of years my favourite living author. Simmons has produced recently Drood, The Terror and Black Hills all of which have been contenders for the book of the year. He became famous for his hyperion series but his scope extends away from the science fiction platform into other genre's, all of his books however have a core of mysticism and horror.
The Song of Kali as I've mentioned was Simmons first book, it was written in 1985 and is set in the Indian city of Calcutta and is unashamedly a horror story. The concept of the book is a simple one, basically a famous Hindu Indian poet M. Dai has been believed to be dead for many years before new work of his lands on the desk of a New York literary magazine. The magazine decides to investigate as to whether Dai is alive and sends one of their reporters Robert Luczak, a poet and a writer to investigate. Robert decides to take his wife and his baby daughter turning the assignment into a kind of holiday. The horror angle of the story means that the introduction of innocents is always a sign for bad things are going to happen.
Luczak is sent to Calcutta and is immediately pulled into the horror that Calcutta can offer, a horribly busy chaotic city soon drives him into a sense of madness. He is introduced to odd and unpleasant people who are supposed to be helping him, the city is the true horror in the novel, it is amorphous and all consuming bringing pain and death to many without a sense of presence or desire. This casting of an entire city as a character in a book is a hard one to pull off but Dan Simmons manages to bring into his novel a sense of creeping evil and corrupt god worshipping.
We suspect from the beginning that the book is going to end badly with Luczak being the central character in the events as they unfurl, he is a poet open to the influences from people in the city soon people he meets introduce him to the horrid Kali cult and convince him that Calcutta is really Kale-cult, a city dominated by the god Kali.
The hunt for M. Dai is forgotten for a while whilst the Kali sect bring their horror to Luczak and he starts fearing for his families safety. Just at the point of leaving, the city throws him a bone and we are introduced to the mysterious M.Dai and at this point the novel enters into true horror. The novel up to this point could be read as a terrible travel book condemning Calcutta as a wash of humanity crushing the life out of anyone visiting or living there, when we meet M. Dai the book goes gruesome horror.
The meeting of Luczak with M. DAi also changes the pace of the novel, up to this point the novel reads like a man who is a bit scared and slightly frantic but after the meeting we are fully into a frantic, psychotic examination of madness caused by staying in a strange city, fear for his family safety and a wish to understand who M. Dai and how he is still alive.
The final 50 or so pages of the novel bring together the horror and fear embedded in the novel and events depicted are truly upsetting to read. The book comes to a conclusion with terrible events with a strange almost abrupt conclusion to the tragedy. The final chapter glimpses at redemption and life beginning again but it feels like a bit of a tag-on perhaps suggested by an editor saying he wanted the novel to finish on an upbeat end. It would be interesting to see if Simmons would have finished the novel in the same way if this was his tenth book rather than first?
This is his first book and the writing style whilst still good don't quite reach the heights of his latter novels, however, the Simmons habit of writing a kind of first person perspective novel centred around one character without it truly being in that characters voice is present here. We get the book as though we are standing alongside Robert Luczak without quite being inside his head and fully understanding his actions.
Overall a brilliant first novel and as I've said I actively look forward to every Dan Simmons novel as it's released.