Written by: James Keen
“Tonight is the end of someone’s world. If it’s mine, it’s going to be messy.” – ‘Kill the Dead’.
This is second novel in the series of ‘Sandman Slim’ novels by Richard Kadrey and we’re back in the pulp noir horror conceit the author effectively established with the first adventure of James Stark, the part angel, part human force of nature with a gloomy sanguinary past and a ready laconic self-deprecating wit. It’s not imperative that readers pick up Kadrey’s first effort in the series, as the author drops enough hints as to the origins of certain characters, much like John Connolly’s ‘Charlie Parker’ series or Peter Straub’s ‘Blue Rose’ run of books.
Kadrey picks up Stark’s story at pretty much where the author left off with the first book. Stark is still living above the video rental store, ‘Max Overload’ along with his companion, Kasabian, a body-less head addicted to cigarettes, booze and the cheesier type of Hollywood’s movie output. Kasabian’s role is much like that of Jiminy Cricket to Stark’s freakish Pinocchio, only in this instance Kasabian is decidedly less interested in Stark’s sense of right and wrong than he is in attempting to avoid his room-mate’s proclivity for explosively violent retorts. The plot here, much like Kadrey’s first effort is relatively simple: taking jobs with an organisation known as the Golden Vigil, an angelic secret army affiliated with Homeland Security, ‘Sandman Slim’ is called upon to use his incomparably arcane talents to shed light upon paranormal incidents they’re investigating. It’s while doing this that Stark is asked by Lucifer himself to act as bodyguard for his human self while he oversees a movie being made about the Devil’s experience, a biopic giving his side of the story. While preoccupied with protecting Satan’s interests it becomes apparent that some nebulous force is responsible for re-animating scores of the dead, a shambling army of zombies that threatens to pick clean the streets of L.A . like a swarm of voracious undead locusts.
There are other sub-plots threaded throughout the text but they exist merely to give Stark’s a tenuous sort of context that, when the ultra-violent set-pieces kick in, allow the reader a semblance of empathy with Kadray’s foul-mouthed protagonist. As with the first book Stark, the self-confessed “professional shit magnet”, is portrayed as a kind of literary mash-up of tough-guy icons; there’s nods here to every ‘bad-ass’ character you’ve likely come across in the last few decades in noir-themed books and, more significantly, the movies. There’s elements of Carpenter’s anti-heroes Snake Plissken, John Nada, Mignola’s Hellboy and many of Eastwood’s early westerns (even the zombies here are referred to as ‘High Plains Drifters’). This is no bad thing but as Kadray tries to infuse his Sandman with so many recognizable strains of the gruff movie anti-hero the overall effect is that the character is often nothing more than a literary echo chamber for the beleaguered tough-guy hero we’ve seen before, ultimately curiously hollowing out the character by over the top cramming of stereotypes. A seasoned consumer of pop culture over the last couple of generations will easily acknowledge the multiple influences Kadrey pays lip-service to here. There’s very little development of the characters the author established in the first book, aside from Kasabian’s physically augmented situation and a sub-plot involving Stark’s search for his real father and that’s frustrating for anyone hoping for the character to lose some of its comic-book style influences, where characters exist in a stilted non-evolving uinverse..
This is fast, enjoyable material, obviously written by an author infatuated with a particular strain of pop-culture, using a likeable, if somewhat cliched protagonist and delivering thrilling, gory and notably cinematically-styled events and set-pieces. Despite some repetition in terms of Stark’s character motivation and a lethargically-paced section in the first third of the book where it seems the author is floundering in terms of where the plot is headed, adding pages of tedious exposition in place of narrative direction, it’s another involving ‘Sandman Slim’ episode. Though again, as with the first novel, this reviewer is still none the wiser as to why exactly he’s been handed this peculiar moniker.
Order Kill the Dead here.