Set in the Indian city Kolkata, which used to be named Calcutta but the book was written before the name change in 2001 so the name Calcutta is used throughout, and anyway the Kolkata of this book isn’t really like the real Kolkata – it is a dream city, a force separate from the actions of men, a nightmare city that exudes evil miasmas – so, fine, let it be Calcutta then. The evil, sweltering Calcutta as an abstract representation.
This was Dan Simmons’ debut novel and it made quite a splash on publication. Various writers called it a brilliant first novel and the best fantasy horror novel in ages, and it won the World Fantasy Award in 1986. I enjoyed it a lot, despite some initial misgivings and an annoying main character.
I’m not sure if I’m cut out for reading horror novels, though. Not because this one was so scary but because I can’t shut off the analytical part of my brain and therefore notice every effort that Simmons makes to manipulate a feeling of dread in me, and I am pushing back against it. Simmons peppers the narrative with little moments of dread, for example when Robert, the main character, reads a newspaper there is a photo of a corpse on the front page, or when he is alone he sees a giant rat scampering through the hallway. So many of these little moments that make me think: I know what you’re doing, Simmons, and I’m not having it.
Much of the dread has the Indian people as a topic, and the chaos of the hot, overcrowded city. The Indians and their city become the source of a Lovecraftian disgust. Why Lovecraftian? Well, firstly the constant descriptions of urban decay, poverty, overpopulation and the cultural differences are in service of this constant anxiety in main character Robert. I think that the depictions of the horror of a crowded poor city are overreactions, as I’ve visited cities like that and they didn’t make me lose my mind (I think. You can never know), but me saying this is also part of me pushing back against the author’s efforts to conjure up feelings of dread, instead of going with it. You can also immerse yourself in it, and I succeeded in that in the end.
Some readers attack Simmons himself for these descriptions, calling it xenophobia, but they are the main character’s overreactions instead of Simmons’. Robert is an effete poet who is quick to anger and cannot put himself into the right mindset. And secondly, it’s Lovecraftian because this is also a fantasy novel involving the corrosive presence of an evil Goddess who controls some ancient evil cult, so there’s that. Robert’s anxiety may therefore have a supernatural cause. He’s sensitive to these things.
To be fair, very soon stuff begins to happen that should make Robert horrified. I was already enjoying the quality prose and pleasant pacing of the story before that, as Simmons’ writing has good qualities, so when the horror really started I got into it more and more. It’s one of those stories were the main character gets sucked into a situation deeper and deeper until there is no more chance of escape, and every effort before that time to extricate himself fails. There are some genuinely creepy moments, like the image of a multi-armed Kali scuttling through dark temple corridors. The only thing that annoyed me was Robert himself. He talks down to his wife, never communicates where he is going or what is going on, has a temper… but doesn’t deserve what happens to him.