Song of Kali (1985) by Dan Simmons

‘All of the reasoned editorials sounded hollow in light of the perverse randomness of the event. It was as if only a thin wall of electric lighting protected the great cities of the world from total barbarism.’

-Dan Simmons, Song of Kali

A random recommendation on Robert Mayer Burnett’s YouTube channel brought me to this book. I read Simmons’s Hyperion a while back and enjoyed it, but never tried anything else by him. The synopsis sounded intriguing, as did the setting of “Calcutta,” (now Kolkata). Song of Kali won the World Fantasy Award in 1986.

Art by Francois Baranger

Synopsis

Song of Kali follows an American magazine editor who journeys to the brutally bleak, poverty-stricken Indian city in search of a manuscript by a mysterious poet—but instead is drawn into an encounter with the cult of Kali, goddess of death.’


My Thoughts

Literary magazine editor Robert Luczak (Loo-zack) is sent to “Calcutta” to verify the rumours of new work by the legendary Indian poet M. Das. The poet “disappeared” eight years previously, and nothing has been heard from him since. It is presumed that he is dead. Luczak sets off on this journey with his Indian wife, Amrita, and their baby girl, Victoria.

“Calcutta was stretched out below, over 250 square miles of city, a galaxy of lights after the absolute blackness of cloud tops and the Bay of Bengal. I had flown into many cities at night, but none like this. Instead of the usual geometries of electric lights, Calcutta at midnight was ablaze with countless lanterns, open fires, and a strange, soft glow.”

-Dan Simmons, Song of Kali, p.17

Song of Kali starts off slowly setting the scene and introducing us to main character Robert Luczak. The first thing I noticed was how well written it is. Simmons writes quality prose and carefully builds the intrigue and tension of the story. His descriptions of Luczak’s impressions of the chaotic city of Calcutta are fascinating, sometimes frightening and depressing. There is no doubt that the author is using poetic license to help build an atmosphere of unease and increasing dread. He is also writing the story from Luczak’s viewpoint. Nevertheless, some reviewers have complained about Simmons’s fictional version of “Calcutta” and called it “discriminatory.” This is a whole other debate, but I wonder why there seems to be a propensity for equating an author’s views to their main character(s). If the main character thinks like this, then that must mean the author does. In a work of imagination. Really? I’ll stop there before I go off on a rant.

The characters are rounded and memorable. Robert Luczak is a flawed man. He makes mistakes, and this helps make him feel believable. The harrowing experiences he undergoes during his time in Calcutta clearly shape his views on the city.

“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place.”

This is how the book begins. Why would he make such a damning statement? What could have happened to him there? I wanted to know more, and Simmons’s narrative pulled me in.

Art by Richard Carr

As I already mentioned, the book begins slowly and takes its time introducing the various characters. When the Luczaks arrive at the airport, they are met by M.T. Krishna who guides them to their hotel. Krishna, a local teacher, is a fascinating character and quickly became my favourite.

“His face was relatively young–late twenties, perhaps–and clean-shaven, but his black hair stood out in great electric tufts and his dark, piercing eyes gave an impression of such intensity that it bordered on a sense of restrained violence.”

-Dan Simmons


Like most of the secondary characters, you are never quite sure what Krishna’s intentions are. He has information regarding the missing Indian poet M. Das and introduces Luczak to a university student who has an incredible story to tell; a story that sparked memories of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It is in this part of the story where the horror creeps in. I wouldn’t label it outright “horror,” more like fantasy horror, but there are some creepy and disturbing scenes in here. Again, it’s written so well by Simmons.

From here on in, things get stranger and more fantastic. Luczak gets tangled up in a fever-dream-like nightmare which had me hooked. I have to stress that the final third of the book is page-turningly addictive. I was almost racing to the end to find out what happened next. In fact, Song of Kali has reminded me to read more by Simmons. Do you have any recommendations?

Recommended for fans of well-written adventure stories which contain elements of fantasy-horror, as well as believable characters. Be wary of some depictions of body horror.

Thanks for reading! I need to brew up a nice and calming cup of Sencha to relax now.

34 thoughts on “Song of Kali (1985) by Dan Simmons

  1. Hyperion is my only Simmons to date. I am planning on reading Drood by him, but have no other advice to give. Sorry I couldn’t help more.

    From what I gather, he’s as much a nonslasher horror writer as an SF writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been meaning to read more by Simmons and this fits the bill nicely, thanks! Your description reminds me of Tim Powers somehow, which is always a good thing in my book 😉
    I’ve read both Hyperion omnibus, which I absolutely loved, and Endymion omnibus, which put me off reading more Simmons for a while 😅 Every one of these four books was beautifully written, but Endymion was far inferior to Hyperion in terms of plot and characters, unfortunately.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, I heard Endymion was disappointing. I still haven’t read Fall of Hyperion. As I mentioned to Bookstooge, I’ve heard Carrion Comfort is supposed to be a scary horror story by Simmons. A possible future Halloween read, perhaps. Also, his book The Terror is said to be a great read, too. I started watching the mini-series based on it, but dipped out halfway through it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love Simmons, but I have never read this. My husband has though, and he loved it – however, his descriptions of the horror in it have kind of scared me off. One day, I might be brave enough to tackle it.

    Anyway, my favorite Simmons book is The Terror. It’s inspired by the lost Franklin expedition and AMC adapted it into a show a couple years back. Historical fiction meets horror with a bit of the supernatural – hope you’ll enjoy it!

    Also, I can’t agree more with you on this statement: “but I wonder why there seems to be a propensity for equating an author’s views to their main character(s).” As much as I’d like to blame it on the lack of critical thinking skills in a lot of today’s readers, sadly it’s just as likely that it’s a bunch of “woke” reviewers tripping over themselves to point out any perceived offences in order to pat themselves on the back. These are the folks who know it’s fiction, but of course, scoring internet points is more important!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the scary scenes are pretty horrific when they happen. There is a hallucinatory feel to them, too, like we’re not really sure if they are happening or not.

      Thanks for the recommendation. The Terror is sounding more and more like an essential read. I watched the first episode of the series but didn’t continue with it.

      You make great points in your comment on the “lack of critical thinking skills in a lot of today’s readers.” It really does feel like a competition to discover who can be the most offended, or find the highest number of things to object to. And then wait for their standing ovation and “pats on the back.” Have they forgotten what fiction is? Or what it’s supposed to do? Can they even follow a story and enjoy it anymore? “I’m sorry, I can’t see the story. It seems to be hidden behind your huge objections.” 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really loved Hyperion, and read mixed reviews about his other works, so this is a valuable recommendation, thanks 🙂 And the Fantasy Masterworks edition looks really nice…

    “Luczak” seems to be a name of Polish origin, its original version would use “Ł” as the first letter, to be pronunced “woo-chuck” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Piotrek! I think Simmons mentions his character’s Polish origins, or it was mentioned in a review I read. The author provided that pronunciation guide for the name. It’s nice to hear how it would really sound 😃 Completely different!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This and Hyperion are both on my list so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed them. I love a book that becomes so addictive you want to turn pages before you’ve read them just to see what happens next and have to constantly slow yourself down to enjoy each paragraph, one at a time. I like the writing style in the quotes you’ve provided. That can help so much in building that tension and excitement. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Todd. I hope you enjoy the books. Yes, it was a book of two halves: slow and steady to start with, then a frantic race to the ending. I really like it when a book becomes a true page-turner.

      Like

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