I have never been to Calcutta, I've never walked over piles of human waste, I've never been stuck in an ass-to-tits traffic jam caused by a cow, and I've never been cornered by mobs of beggars pressing against me for a handout. I HAVE been to Comic-Con, which is not an entirely dissimilar experience, but the sheer crushing weight of that kind of poverty was beautifully recreated in Dan Simmons' book Song of Kali.
Song of Kali has been on my reading list for a long time, particularly after re-reading Poppy Z. Brite'sCalcutta, Lord of Nerves story from the Living Dead anthology. That story was a favorite of mine for its vivid prose and ghastly imagery. She claimed to be inspired by Simmons' work and I decided to check out the source material. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.
I'm inclined to be kindly predisposed to horror. I keep trying to warn y'all that I'm a lousy reviewer because of my tunnel-visioned, fanboy love for this stuff. Hell, I'm typing this review while watching The Gravedancers. Needless to say, I don't expect anyone to really take what I have to say seriously. But while I have loved many a crap novel in my time, I rarely come across anything as beautifully written or as richly detailed as Song of Kali.
In the book, the song of Kali is the personification of all the miserable entropy in the world, and Calcutta is the fetid embodiment of her song. Simmons' book is famous for its vivid depiction of the city's squalor and hopelessness, earning the World Fantasy Award in 1986. The award is well-earned. This book has some of the most vivid and poetic prose I've ever read. I challenge anyone to read the first chapter and not be completely engaged.
The book follows Robert Luzcak, a poet and magazine editor, as he goes to Calcutta at the invitation of a local literary society to pick up a new poetry collection from the presumed-dead poet M. Das. As he explores the city, he finds himself pulled deeper into the (possibly) supernatural events surrounding M. Das and his sinister new work. Eventually Luzcak and his family pay a terrible price for crossing the cult of Kali, in one of the most horrifying final sequences I've ever encountered.
This is not a book that thunders you over and over with gory bodies plopping on the pages. The story unfolds gradually as Luzcak slowly delves into the mystery behind M. Das's work. The easy pacing is a blessing to the story. Reading the book feels like sinking into a warm bath of Good.
Now, while I greatly enjoyed the book, I do have to relate an experience I had while reading it. I work for a company with a lot of Indian immigrant employees and while I was riding an elevator with my nose stuck in the book, a couple of guys got on the elevator with me. They took a glance at the cover and looked at me with a cocked eyebrow.
I felt a bit self-conscious after that encounter. The book is not particularly kind to Calcutta or certain aspects of Indian culture. It has a certain white-man-looks-down vibe about it in places. I'm actually very curious to find out what an Indian person thought of the story. Were there elements that they could relate to, or did they view it as a writer trying to make a statement about evil by demonizing another culture? On the other hand, Simmons begins chapters with quotes from famous Indian poets describing Calcutta in equally inelegant terms. Curiouser and curiouser.
Anyway, go check it out. It's one helluva piece of literature.