Song of Kali
by Dan Simmons
1986 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
I'm not sure what was going on with the World Fantasy Award juries back in the mid-eighties. They managed to select a set of very interesting novels their winners each completely different from the last. So after mythic China and an allegorical novel there is a horror novel based around a middle class American couple in a third world slum and he does it well.
In 1977 it was still twenty years before India would start it's economic boom and Calcutta was a warren of slums. Word of a new work by an Indian poet who mysteriously vanished a decade before brings a poet to the sprawling city. He brings his Indian wife along with him to act as translator and their infant daughter. Once the poet arrives however he finds himself confronted with stories of a cult dedicated to the worship of the goddess Kali and hints of horrors lurking just out of sight.
The real heart of Song of Kali is in its atmosphere. Simmons paints an image of Calcutta as a city that is well past the point of decay, where ten million people live in the worst of conditions in enough space for just a million of them. It's a city and people pushed into complete collapse and Simmons captures it. The book is almost a travel guide to the worst places on earth; Calcutta may not fit the description anymore but such places still exist. The bulk of the novel's consists of
those descriptions and while that could have been tedious I found that it drove the story well.
The plot itself is more intriguing than I would expect given the fact that it could have been distilled down to something around a third of the novel's length without really losing anything. Simmons impressed me with his pacing as he takes detours that feel minor, take up a great deal of time (like the descriptions mentioned before), and yet serve to draw out the tension to the straining point. He'll slide off into a side trip to a museum dedicated to a writer or a lengthy story of a young man in the big city but his prose managed to keep pulling me along to the conclusion.
And what a climax it has. I guessed part of what would occur toward the end of Song of Kali but I was still impressed.
By using the poet as the perspective character Simmons gives us a view of a man being pulled into insanity and barely holding on. He is becoming absorbed into the poisonous atmosphere of Calcutta and the reader is getting carried along with it. He is interesting as the rational man being pushed to an edge.
Song of Kali is a very interesting novel of a style that isn't seen very often these days. At one point the "civilized man in a strange and evil foreign land" theme was more common but the only recent use I can think of is the movie Babel. That's understandable since it does inherently contain tones of racism and cultural imperialism. I think that Simmons manages to sidestep those problems by making Song of Kali more about the problems that are inherent to any overpopulated third-world country than India in particular.
I found a lot to like in Song of Kali; it is creepy, depressing, and haunting. The only negative for me was that a reader who needs constant action might not enjoy it. This is a horror novel of atmopshere and it was just what I like.