Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey
Being really old means falling victim to the curse of memory. You know weird stuff no-one else cares about, but have the uncontrollable urge to tell everyone all about it. Like remembering the first time I saw Hellzapoppin’ in the cinema more than fifty years ago. It was a revelation. Living in a quiet backwater, experience had taught me Hollywood produced rather dull films, particularly as propaganda or feel-good during and immediately after WWII. This was my first experience of genuinely subversive comedy in the cinema. Now, apart from the Lindy Hoppin’, it all looks a bit desperate and rather sad. For those with hindsight, we can judge how radical it was, appreciate how much it challenged orthodoxy, and then just smile. Sometimes, humour can’t transcend the cultural limitations of time. You have to be in the moment to appreciate it and then have the wisdom to let it go.
For years, I used to think the same problem applied to written humour — that it was forever stuck in its culture. Then, in 1962, I picked up a copy of Catch 22 — the first time I laughed out loud at an American book — shame about the film version. Now I believe it all comes down to the voice. Most of the time, authors aim their creativity at the mass market. This is capitalism in action as, not unnaturally, everyone wants to get the maximum return from the labour of writing. So whatever humour is involved tends to be generic, picking targets familiar to the largest number of people. The result is uniform blandness. It’s all wonderfully inoffensive, usually boring and forgotten quite quickly.
All of which thinking brings me to Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey (the sequel to Sandman Slim). This is not an author aiming at the mass reading audience. According to the demographics, there are more Christians to the square mile across the US than in any other country. Allowing for some dishonesty in answering questionnaires, more than 80% of the population declares some degree of belief in a personal God. Largely following in the Islamic tradition of condemning anyone who mocks their God or His prophets, Christians resist direct or indirect criticism of their beliefs. Marketing this book to them is therefore a challenge. For example, in an early exchange, our hero says to the Devil, “You gave God a rusty trombone and lived to talk about it.” Not something likely to amuse an Old Testament literalist who is probably pissed off that His God has not been making with the lightning bolts to rid this world of blasphemers. That said, there’s actually news that Hollywood may be greenlighting a screen adaptation of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. I suppose the letters will be rewritten so that’s it’s advice from a senior angel on how to guide humans in avoiding temptation and falling into sin. Even 1940’s British satire may be too much for modern America.
Be that as it may, Kill the Dead follows on from Sandman Slim with a completely irreverent first-person narrative involving God, the Devil, a few angels and lesser devils, the occasional vampire, various magicians and, as the title suggests, quite a lot of dead folk. Not forgetting our Sandman who is, of course, an Abomination — like all the best anti-heroes in these end-of-days stories. Although, truth be told, our hero does go a little schizo in the heat of battle and therefore loses some of his acerbic wit for a moment or two.
The most pleasing aspect of the whole is the character development. As our escapee from Hell, James Stark is initially a man on a mission and there ain’t nothing gonna stand in his way as his campaign for revenge rapidly gets out of hand and involves ever more dangerous opponents. Having successfully navigated through to a not-unsuccessful ending in the first book, we now find him working for the “good guys” but, as is always the case, he soon finds himself caught up in a whole new threat scenario. This time, it’s the Devil who’s za popped outa Hell and wants Stark as a bodyguard while visiting Earth. That’s when he’s not offering his expertise to Homeland Security on magical masochism. Yet, there’s soon something strange about Stark. He’s thinking before, during and after more violent episodes. Even to him, this goes against the grain. Indeed there seems to be a whole new unexplored dimension to his personality and physical abilities. Our guess that he must be growing into more of the abilities genetically transmitted by his father is confirmed as the pages turn.
So we have a nicely balanced horror story with associated magic and general supernatural mayhem, developing into a mystery thriller in which we wonder who is behind the plot to stir up all the dead without waiting for the last trump to sound. Told with a positively wicked and noirish sense of humour, readers whizz through to the end as if pursued by the Devil, leaving us hoping for the third episode which is titled Aloha From Hell and due in 2011. This is definitely poppin’ for all who enjoyed the first outing and, unlike Hellzapoppin’ and The Screwtape Letters, will travel well in time. For a review of the fourth in the series, see Devil Said Bang.