Dan Simmons is known for his massive novels. This is not one of them. Why? Well, it's rare that you'll find a horror author who started out their career with a massive tome as their debut novel. Why? Because money, that's why.
Straub had Julia, King had Carrie, McCammon had Baal, and Simmons had this one. What do they all have in common? They're all debuts that are around 300 pages long from authors known to write gargantuan books. Horror is a risky business. Publishers are frugal when it comes to taking a chance on my poor, beloved genre. No one wants to push out a 600-plus-page flop for a debut and lose their shirts over it. Longer novels are notoriously hard to market, and almost impossible to find reviews for. To succeed as a horror author in the literary community, you should have at least two novels under your belt before you reach into the realm of the Tome/Doorstop, and one of those two novels should have won some kind of award: a Stoker award is good; a World Fantasy award is best. Then, and only then, will Penguin Random House or HarperCollins allow you to publish that epic horror novel concerning shapeshifting, post-apocalyptic ferrets hellbent on creating a great, stinking plane known as Musk-World, wherein a band of quirky heroes must defeat High Lord Fear-It and bring a jasmine-and-vanilla-Glade-scented freshness back to their once proud land!
Song of Kali can be mistaken for a xenophobic outing. I guess, anyway. If you actually read and digest the text, I believe you'll find the exact opposite. Because there are several places where Simmons ruminates on the ugliness of Calcutta. But there are just as many sections where Simmons riffs on the nasty underbelly of America, too. In one such section, two men are discussing how Calcutta isn't so much different from some cities in America: Flint, Michigan being one such place. A woman chimes in that there is a supernatural evil overtaking Calcutta; that, at its heart, the city is evil. The local laughs it off and explains that the atrocities found in Calcutta are no different from the atrocities found in America. How exactly is a book xenophobic when it shows both sides of a coin? Are we to say that Simmons is intolerant of India AND America? If so, what land does Simmons favorite? It is Simmons's unbiased approach to this story that I appreciate more than anything else. He could have taken the Indians-and-Arabs-are-all-evil! approach, but he did not. Instead, he showed that any place can be evil, no matter the social order, and that India's class system is no better or worse than America's own class-based system. It is blind faith in any god or religion that Simmons is attacking. The power of indoctrination.
I have a hard time reading Stephen King's Pet Sematary because of Gage's fate. This book has a similar scene that is all the more soul-rending due to its brevity. The scene of which I speak could have been handled numerous ways, but the way in which Simmons handles it is nothing short of genius. Still, due to this scene, I'll likely not reread this book. When I got to this crushing chapter, I was sitting in a doctor's office, waiting to hear the bad news about my back (I ended up having my fifth back surgery a week after completing this novel), and upon reading this scene, muttered out loud, "Oh, fucking hell." The people in the waiting room didn't appreciate my outburst. I apologized, but I wasn't really sorry. Because I felt that "Oh, fucking hell" was the perfect descriptor for my feelings at that moment. The father in me couldn't handle the scene. "Oh, fucking hell" was my way of coping without crying in public.
The scurrying-Kali-in-the-dark sequence is disturbing as hell, too. I'll not forget that one for years to come. I don't quite know how Simmons pulled off that scene. It's a true mystery, that level of atmospheric mastery. Such scenes authors spend entire careers hoping to accomplish, but Simmons did it in his debut. Bravo.
Overall, I think Simmons knew what he was doing here. He created a pretentious poet of a main character, one who muses that Stephen King novels are "trashy", even though King and Simmons have a great respect for one another. They've even blurbed each other's novels on more than one occasion. To attach the MC's viewpoints and xenophobia to the author is to ignore the rules of fiction. This story is fiction, and a good author can inhabit anyone and see all sides of a story without subscribing to those beliefs. I mean, are we to believe that Simmons thinks it is possible to reanimate the dead for the purposes of writing a poem in the hope of pleasing a multi-armed goddess? No. Because he and we know it's fiction. If you can ignore the blatant racism of H.P. Lovecraft, a racism that runs rampant throughout both his life and his work, then you should be able to get through this novel without frying a circuit. Or maybe not. To each their own, I suppose.
In summation: A brief excursion to a truly disturbing place. It's nice to see how Simmons has grown since his debut, and I feel I have a greater respect for his journey now that I've read where he started. Three stars because it's not something I would read again, but I do not regret reading it.
Final Judgment: Divisive.