"L.A. is what happens when a bunch of Lovecraftian elder gods and porn starlets spend a weekend locked up in the Chateau Marmont snorting lines of crack off of Jim Morrison's bones. If the Viagra and the illegal Traci Lords videos don't get you, then the Japanese tentacle porn will. New York has short con cannibals and sewer gators. Chicago is all snowbound yetis and the ghosts of a million angry steers with horns like jackhammers. Texas is criscrossed with ghost railroads that kidnap demon-possessed Lolitas to play strip Russian roulette with six shells in the chamber. L.A. is all assholes and angels, bloodsuckers and trust fund satanists, black magic and movie moguls with more bodies buried under the house than John Wayne Gacy. There are more surveillance cameras and razor wire here than around the Pope. L.A. is one traffic jam away from going completely Hiroshima."
- James Stark
I have a secret. Or maybe it isn't. Either way, I always wanted to grow up to be Philip Marlowe. Or not even Marlowe, but just someone with that same hard-boiled attitude and dedication to what is right at any costs. Spade, you see, would get the job done. Marlowe would do the right thing, even if it meant the job went to crap. He rarely ever got the girl, the money, or anything more than beat senseless. But things were done right. He survived, he fought, and he always wound up doing the right thing. It was someone I could look up to when I was younger. So when something has that distinct, gritty film-noir flavor, it's already got me hooked. This has led me from good things, like Garrett and Nightside to bad things, like some of the more moronic cyberpunk novels, to weird things, like Crooked Little Vein.
At the same time, I've always had a love of urban fantasy, starting with the book Dark Cities Underground. Urban fantasy seemed darker, somehow, and nastier...more concrete. Interestingly, I seem to have sidestepped most of the modern connotations of urban fantasy, and gone more for the weird ones. And believe me, or maybe just believe the quote above the text of this review, this is a weird one indeed.
Sandman Slim begins with James Stark, the antihero and our protagonist, being spat out of Hell and into a garbage pile. He immediately punches out a man described as a "Brad Pitt lookalike" and grabs his clothes and stun gun. After being stuck in Hell for almost a decade, he's managed to escape and is looking very hard for the people who sent him there in the first place. Within short order, he clears out a bar full of skinheads, finds one of the mages who got him dragged off to Hell, endures several gunshots to the chest, and slices his head off (It's okay, he survives). Stark wastes no time telling everyone he's back home with large, explodey signals, drawing the attention of more than just the mages he's come to kill. Enemies and friends begin charging out of the woodwork as it turns out that Stark's vengeance may not just satisfy his urge for blood, but success may mean saving the world itself. But to finish things off, Stark will have to contend with a Homeland Security-funded angel, satanist skinheads, a sadistic race of dead celestials known as the Kissi, and his archnemesis, the charismatic Mason.
What I like most about the book is the feel. It's a good read, but it's a very uncompromising one. Stark is very much on the darker side of the heroic scale: a brutal, caustic man who will finish his quest at any cost, and damn the implications and results. In one of two large, explosive setpieces, Stark destroys a block of Los Angeles fighting with his adversary, Parker. He does not apologize for this act, nor does he seem to feel any regret or remorse, other than letting Parker get away more or less intact. Where most books would be engulfed by their secondary elements (such as romance or fantasy lore subplots) or try to make their hero seem good despite it all, Slim goes the opposite route. Stark isn't any better than the denizens of LA, but his motives are a little more pure. He's a monster, but he's needed because the monsters he fights and kills are ten times worse. In short, Kadrey has taken the crime fiction idea of an antihero back to its roots-- a criminal who does the right thing to further his own motives, rather than to further the greater good.
Another element I like is the way Kadrey sets up his scenes and characters. He has a good grasp of the dialogue, from the tough-guy phrases snarled by the hardened Stark to the down-home platitudes of the Homeland Security chief. He also has a good grasp of set pieces. The climactic battle in a rather twisted specialty nightclub feels like it could have been ripped straight from John Woo, with its gunplay and theatrics. The broad-daylight battle with Parker could have easily fit in a Michael Bay film, if Michael Bay had any sense of taste whatsoever.
If you look at Kadrey's influences and references, you find anime, B movies, the music of Tom Waits, film noir, and gritty crime fiction-- none of which really adapts to a literary style (save the latter), but it all fits together. The images it evokes keep the book moving and keep hitting the right emotional and energetic notes. The references also add a certain amount of cinematic quality to it-- films are more likely to reference topics as vast as anime, Richard Stark's Parker novels, the memoirs of Vidocq, and a great many others, but Kadrey does them effortlessly, without even drawing attention to them.
Another strength the book has is the supporting cast. Stark interacts with a staggering variety of characters, from an enigmatic antiques dealer named Mr. Muninn who seems to know everything about everyone to a hipster girl who works in Stark's video store and wants to learn how to do magic. Each one has their own voice and their own personality, and aside from some of the "holy warriors", none of them blend together. Add to this the meticulous descriptions, and the book takes on an interesting cast-- you can actually see things happening, rather than simply reading and imagining. It's the cinematic quality that makes the characters "pop out" from the page, and what keeps the book moving along at a breakneck pace.
If there are any weaknesses to the book, they would be Stark's personality. He is definitely a tortured man, and you definitely get a sense of that, but it gets to be a bit much when he's a prick even to his friends and those who help him. Sometimes, with people like the angel Alita, this results in amusing exchanges, but one begins to wonder exactly why he's telling his good friend Vidocq to fuck right off? It makes the book as a whole turn away from Stark as a hero and wonder if he didn't deserve to be dragged into Hell, even if he was a good person before he was yanked off and his girlfriend died.
But in the end, despite the flaws of its main character, it is a fantastic book. It takes urban fantasy back to what it was originally-- taking the fairytales, myths, and legends of our time and melding them with the dark, modern setting. It involves a chase scene through Hell, womanizing alchemists, gruesome villains, and a cameo from Satan in which he rifles through a collection of movies on "the Devil", searching for something to steal and watch at home for entertainment. I recommend this book because it's a fantastic read from start to finish (the fact that it pushes all my buttons aside), because it's fun, and because Richard Kadrey takes the genre where everyone else holds back, flinches, and goes "No, no, that's not right." It's an action movie, a payback thriller, and a dark fantasy all rolled into one, it's original, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Next Week: Life's Lottery by Kim Newman, or, if either of my interlibrary loans come through, Kill The Dead by Richard Kadrey (the sequel to this week's book), or Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat.