I've often found supernatural horror to be a bit underwhelming. Ghosts and vampires don't scare me, I can't muster much belief in Lovecraftian elder gods, and as for werewolves, well frankly most women already know what it's like to turn into a beast once a month. The most affecting horrors are those found in the everyday world: the violence, cruelty, and other awfulness that humans can inflict on each other without need of the supernatural.
Dan Simmons' debut novel Song of Kali is a not-always-successful marriage of ordinary and supernatural horror. Set in 1977, it takes the reader to a place that is already close to being Hellish in every sense of the word: the city of Calcutta.
I've no idea if the Calcutta in Simmons' book is an accurate portrayal of the real city. For the sake of the city's inhabitants, I hope not. Simmons' Calcutta is a vile place – unrelenting heat, stench, squalor, poverty, and the injustice of the caste system have created a place that's an assault on the senses and the mind. Worse, its residents have been numbed by the place and not just acquiescing in its evil, but embracing of it.
American poet Bobby Luczak journeys to Calcutta to obtain a manuscript supposedly written by the famed Indian poet M. Das. Das has been missing for a number of years, but apparently is alive and writing poetry again. Luczak brings his Indian-born wife Amrita and their infant daughter with him on the journey. He gets the manuscript quickly enough, but is waylaid by his quest to find out if the writer is really Das, and soon finds himself enmeshed in some creepy goings-on in the physical and spiritual underbelly of Calcutta.
Song of Kali is most effective when it focuses on the day-to-day horrors of life in Calcutta. Simmons very evocatively describes the heat and stench of the place, the overcrowdedness, the filthy environment. It's a place where even the nicest hotels have drowned rats floating in the swimming pools. Perhaps most chilling is the pervasive indifference to human misery – corpses are abandoned on the street, children are allowed to play in cesspools, and a low-caste "untouchable" woman is ignored when she steps on a live wire and is electrocuted. But the book takes a wrong turn when the cult of Kali makes an appearance, and a living statue of the goddess is less menacing than absurd, like something out of a B movie.
The book's other major failing is that its protagonists aren't that sympathetic. We can identify with Luczak's "stranger in a strange land" feeling – it's clear very early on that he is out of his element in every way and subject to the whims of anyone who appears to befriend him. But his arrogant attitude toward the city and the culture is annoying. Worst of all, he insists on bringing his wife and child to this unpleasant place – the reason he gives is that his wife will help as a translator, but in reality she does not speak the language of Calcutta and Luczak knows this. He simply doesn’t want to be inconvenienced by a few days without his family. It's a hubris that will prove fatal.
While Song of Kali gives a disturbing, chilling view of Calcutta, it simply doesn't succeed as a horror novel. The supernatural elements are too creaky, and the ending chapters try for a sort of depth and grandeur the novel simply can't support. The overly enthusiastic blurbs and the jacket copy touting the book as "the most truly frightening reading experience of your life" only set expectations that can't possibly be met. But if you can avoid the hype and don't mind looking at the darker side of a city and culture, Song of Kali has some rewards for you – just not as many as its admirers would have you believe.