Written by: James Keen
“It’s a man’s body. Naked. Nailed face-first to the wall about six feet off the ground. Somebody has carefully peeled back the outer layers of skin. Let them fall back like pale, fleshy leaves on a plant…” -Sandman Slim.
Creating written mythologies that are intricately engaging is a difficult task when you consider the long list of what has come before in the pantheon of horror and fantasy writing. Taking the real world and juxtaposing it with other-wordly elements to create a convincing literary tapestry is a troublesome endeavour for many authors. John Connelly has managed it with his ‘Charlie Parker’ series – an unsettling combination of detective fiction fused with supernatural elements – and the author Clive Barker has accomplished this same feat time and again with works such as ‘Cabal’, ‘Imagica’, and ‘The Art…’ books. The ‘tricky’ part -in terms of suspending a reader’s disbelief- is invariably reliable on the exposition. In the novel ‘Sandman Slim’ Richard Kadrey has fashioned a narrative framework that is not entirely successful when it comes to juggling his own body of myths but he does it in such a propulsive manner that the novel’s failings are, by and large, ameliorated by it.
This is a first-person narrative that establishes the unique dilemma of ‘James Stark’, a thirty-ish fugitive from hell, a man possessing “…a soul dirtier than a hobo’s boxer shorts” who wakes up/appears in an L.A . cemetery, clothes smouldering and eyes stinging from the daylight. Kadrey’s rapid-fire diction feeds the reader brief clues as to his history and establishes Stark’s raison d’etre; he wants to obliterate those who are responsible for his eleven year impromptu incarceration in what he refers to as ‘downtown’ (Hell), and to avenge the death of his girlfriend, Alice.
The opening is problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that this tale recalls elements of storytelling the discerning reader has been exposed to many times before. There are obvious similarities to James O’Barr’s seminal work ‘The Crow’, echoes of Alan Moore’s ‘Hellblazer’ and hints of other high watermarks of genre fiction that are distracting, if only because these archetypes of fiction have been excessively mined by lesser talents with the result that the reader can easily begin second-guessing the narrative’s direction. Kadrey counteracts this with an effusive inventiveness; there’s the ‘fish-out-of-water’ story dynamic exploring the eleven-year absence of our protagonist set against the inexorable march of technology, as one character observes, “…you might be the Tasmanian Devil and the Angel of Death all rolled into one, but you don’t even know how to get a phone.” coupled with the abrupt flashbacks Stark has of his experiences in Kadrey’s surreal and gruesome netherworld setting. Though this latter device proves to be only marginally diverting as the book progresses, with the rather banal reasoning behind many of Hell’s ruling denizens revealing itself as a rather tediously obvious military metaphor.
After the -at times- awkward first third of the book Kadrey picks up the narrative’s pace and shows himself to be a smartly entertaining writer. His array of characters are quirky and involving and the book’s nemesis, the devious magician Mason Faim proves to be a formidably Machiavellian opponent. There are other less ostentatious delights, too; the writer’s portrait of modern day Los Angeles is filtered through Stark’s laconic and snarky internal monlogues, in a nod perhaps to the standards of detective fiction of yore. Kadrey’s incisive swipes at consumer culture and the vapid nature of Hollywood celebrity are notably amusing. There are also multiple incidences of self-effacing wit, “…even my stupidity has its limits” that do much to encourage the reader’s empathy with the character. While the author demonstrates a highly visual grasp of the worlds he describes to achieve atmosphere and action, it’s satisfyingly balanced by the metaphysical torment of the central character’s extraordinary situation.
The novel’s conclusion is gratifying and rewarding; Kadrey leaves the reader with a flawed but ambitious piece of writing, with the welcome promise of more to follow. Despite the oddly vague ‘explanation’ for the protagonist’s acquired alternate moniker of ‘Sandman Slim’ and the curiously disengaging sections of the book dealing with Stark/Slim’s gladiatorial history in ‘Downtown/ Hell this is a gripping, blood-thirsty and blackly comic adventure that demands to be wolfed down in a single sitting. Bring on volume two…
Rating: 3.5/ 5