It was the mighty Harlan Ellison who first got lots of people talking about Dan Simmons back in the early 1980s. Duly impressed by one of his short stories (I believe it was "The River Styx Flows Upstream") at a writers' workshop, Ellison apparently dismissed everyone else in attendance - of course he did! - and the story ended up in (the now long-gone) Twilight Zone magazine and garnered more praise in the field. How do you follow that up? By winning the World Fantasy Award for a debut novel, Song of Kali, and beating out major genre writers Clive Barker and Anne Rice. Well damn!
Song of Kali is a personal horror favorite of mine, has been ever since I tracked it down around 1989 or '90 and had to place a special order for it even then. Can't recall how I'd heard of it; probably some interview with Ellison somewhere. The glorious red textured paperback cover was like manna from heaven for me, while thanks go to Jill Bauman, for a cover illustration actually relates to the plot. For years I'd kept my original paperback (Tor, November 1986) in perfect condition, and I also bought this beat-up used copy so I could reread it - three times now! - and mark my favorite passages, for instance:
I think that there are black holes in reality. Black holes in the human spirit. And actual places where, because of density or misery or sheer human perversity, the fabric of things comes apart and that black core in us swallows all the rest.
An aspiring American poet named Robert Luczak, his Indian wife Amrita, and their infant daughter trek to Calcutta so he can track down a lauded and mysterious old Indian poet, M. Das, whose unsettling new work has been making the rounds of the literary world - after his supposed death some years before. But the young American finds an exotic and dangerous world beyond his worst... oh, you know. You know. But Song of Kali also has something to say, as its dour anxieties address (inherent?) xenophobia, fear of women (manifested in the devouring goddess of Kali), the all-too-real fear of our children being harmed, as well as our unholy, unending passion and capacity for violence.
1991 Tor reprint
"All violence is power," this mysterious old M. Das will say. "Sometimes there is no hope. Sometimes there is only pain." And that, I don't need to tell you, is the crux of all great horror fiction, and Simmons doesn't hesitate in taking us far down that stinking, miasmic river to the heart of all darkness. He is a sure and unflinching guide. Luczak's knowledge of classic poetry, particularly Yeats, and Amrita's intelligence and instinct, infuse this novel with a moral weight most horror writers either fake or never bother with in the first place.
Simmons also does the nearly unbelievable job of bringing the city of Calcutta to life on the page - I believe he was in the city for only several days to do research - all dreadful, dank atmosphere, swarming noxious crowds, shadowy cult secrets, and bloated and rotting corpses. It's all so palpable, and strikingly unique in the annals of '80s horror fiction. And those with some knowledge of India's ancient religious myths will find the tale all the more disturbing. But in the end the only true evil, the only evil ever, is human and never divine.
The song of Kali is now sung, the age of Kali has begun. Listen.
"The world is pain/O terrible wife of Siva/ You are chewing the flesh/Your tongue is drinking the blood, O dark Mother! O unclad Mother/O beloved of Siva/The world is pain."
I'm sure upon seeing this lurid paperback cover (Warner, October 1989) for his sixth novel, author Thomas Tessier felt no bliss at all. Rapture features nothing even close to that tacky terrible art, fit more for some Psycho rip than for the even-tempered criminal psychological study it actually is. Now, scroll down a take a peek at the original hardcover from Atheneum Press: that's a scene right from the book! Amazing, right? I picked up Rapture solely because it was a Tessier novel; I'm not a huge fan of slasher stuff, so I hoped the cover was only minimally accurate. I never even glanced at the back cover's little synopsis, and I'm glad I didn't because I had no idea what to expect as I began reading, and was more than a little pleasantly surprised - we usually have some idea what a book is about when we pick it up, no? Tessier's prose and conviction kept me riveted to the page; it's terrific, a literate, precise, and chilling thriller. You should stop reading here if you'd like to be surprised as I was.
While Rapture isn't as decadent or perverse as his excellent Finishing Touches, neither is the novel as ambiguous as The Nightwalker; Rapture is a cool and collected expose of the sociopathic mind. Tessier spends much time detailing Jeff Lisker's growing obsession with an old high school friend (platonic, however), Georgianne Slaton. Both are now in their early thirties and live successful lives on opposite coasts: he owns an up-and-coming software business in LA; she's raising a family in their hometown of Millville, Connecticut. When Jeff's father dies he goes home for the funeral and tracks down Georgianne... but in a rather creepy manner: he follows her from her home and pretends to "accidentally" bump into her as she runs errands in town. Soon he's having dinner with her, her husband Sean, whose sarcasm, condescension, and impatience simmer barely below the surface (or is that just Jeff's insecurity?), and Bonnie, their brilliant teenage daughter just out of high school. Bonnie, who looks not unlike Georgianne 20-odd years ago. He decides he will simply take Georgianne from Sean. That's it. No matter how.
Georgianne would fall into his arms, and Bonnie would come with her. Sean was on the way out; he just didn't know it yet. And why not? Why the fuck not? "Take her," he said aloud. "I'll just take her!" And as he said this over and over again, he fell in love with the words, what they meant and the sheer beautiful sound of them. He seemed to be completing a sentence he'd begun to form during some previous incarnation.
2006 Leisure Books reprint
Tessier's great trick is that he slowly guides us into Jeff's mind,
its rationalizations and inventions, its almost charming delusions, its grandiose planning and seeming
lack of guile, that we don't quite realize just how fucking crazy he is,
and when we do... his motivation still makes perfectly logical sense. It's why the book is so readable; it's all so easily believable, since the characters and situations feel so real. There is wit too, black wit, as when Jeff muses, while sitting in a coffeeshop, what its name means: Au Bon Pain. Why, it means "Oh Good Pain!" Heh. In a lesser-skilled writer, a couple twists in Rapture would seem forced; Tessier can make them seem like destiny.
He had treated the whole thing like a problem at work... you let it simmer in the depths of your brain, and sooner or later the answer will come to the surface. It was, he reckoned, an essentially creative process.... He belonged to the select handful of individuals who had the courage, imagination, and sheer will to create their own destinies.
1989 UK paperback
One step follows another, problems arise and are dispatched, all leading
deeper and deeper into a conflagration of desire and death. "Desire" is
key as well, as Tessier is one of the field's great erotic writers, understanding and presenting sex not as exploitation, but as human nature.
Jeff's sex life, as well as his fantasies, are on full view in Rapture, and in this, we truly see his self-absorption. That then-current reference to Fatal Attraction in the cover blurb isn't so ridiculous. Jeff will not be ignored by Georgianne, nor by Bonnie; he will not be thwarted from his path, not even if something inside him knows just how doomed his plan is:
He was floating in darkness, high above the earth, and a voice was broadcasting a message to his brain: Stay there, don't come back.
The incomparable Ray Bradbury has died today at age 91. Who can count the hours of wisdom and joy and invention he gave us? I tried to do justice to two of his incredible books, The October Country and The Halloween Tree. Mr. Bradbury, the 20th and 21st centuries needed your imagination, and you came through. Autumns won't be the same without you.
(And thanks to my pal Scott Ross, whose charming quote gave me the title for this post!)
Wow, I haven't had much luck lately finding good, forgotten horror fiction surprises. Comparing this book to Rosemary's Baby is wildly inaccurate. Ira Levin's classic novel is a concise and wittily ironic tale of urban paranoia and maternal instinct disguised as a Satanic horror story, while Nicholas Condé's (nope, I have no idea who he is either) first novel The Religion is a straightforward, one-dimensional, vaguely entertaining, extremely mainstream novel whose every attempt at suspense fails utterly. Each detail the author includes to hide who the real bad guys are only convinces you otherwise; his misdirection leads you right to the actual culprits. It hardly counts as true horror fiction, only an of-the-moment bit of bestseller flotsam. The Religion attempts terror but in the most superficial pop culture way possible.
Since both book and author were unknown to me, and the back cover copy didn't make it sound horrible, I took a chance when I bought it (do I really care that a Publishers Weekly or Louisville Times book critic couldn't put the book down? Bah). But there are no surprises anywhere, not in characterization or plot development (well, one character seems based on Margaret Mead, which made for some decent reading).
Made into a movie I've never seen
Every single New York City setting is presented like an '80s TV movie,
with about as much invention: Central Park, Columbia University, the
psychiatrist's office, the occult paraphernalia store, the morgue, the
police station, the cult ceremony. Even the downbeat ending was
telegraphed. Early on I liked the academic anthropology angle, but
making "the religion" an actual one - Santeria, a voodoo variant -
showed little imagination and weird sort of tasteless cultural
appropriation. I think if Condé had created a bizarre cult of his own,
I'd have been much more into The Religion, but I guess I'm just a horror fiction atheist after all.
One of my favorite paperback horror authors that I discovered after starting Too Much Horror Fiction, Michael McDowell was born sixty-two years ago today. He died of AIDS in '99 but left macabre-pop culture an indelible imprint with having written the screenplays for Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas. Must-reads are his Blackwater series (I still have three volumes to go) and The Amulet, and I'm still waiting to get copies of his Avon novels Katie, Cold Moon over Babylon, and Gilded Needles. How much I look forward to reading them! Today however I've satisfied a McDowell reading jones with "Miss Mack," his first short story (he has not even a dozen), published in Alan Ryan's 1986 anthology Halloween Horrors (October 1987 Charter paperback below).
Is "Miss Mack" any good, worth tracking down Halloween Horrors itself (it appeared absolutely nowhere else), since there was no collection published of McDowell's short fiction? I'd have to say yeah, having just had my spine snapped and my blood chilled to zero by this charming, disarming tale. More Southern folk in some dire straits, meddling matriarchs, and other welcome and effectively unsettling trademarks of his novels. Complete with a merciless, literally unforgiving climax.
McDowell also wrote for the better-remembered-than-watched late-'80s TV creepfest, "Tales from the Darkside." A handful of his screenplay-to-story adaptations are included, although I'm not sure how essential this 1988 Berkley paperback is. I never knew about till earlier today! So... you're welcome?
Looking for a forgotten horror novel or short story? Remember the cheesy paperback art but not who wrote the book? Send me an email at willerror[at]gmail.com describing it and if I don't know it, one of my readers might!
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