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Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

On Friday, a friend of my wife’s sent me one of these rabid Christian circulars. She knew it would amuse me. It featured a list of people who had mocked God only to die in spectacularly appalling ways some time later. The message was simple. You’d better believe in God, particularly as portrayed in the Old Testament, because one word or action out of place and the old fellah is gonna come down from on-high and kick your ass downstairs to Hell. Well, as a more-or-less life-long atheist, bring it on, says I. It’s about time we got past this faith barrier and began collecting some empirical evidence on the acts and omissions of deities around the word. From this, you will realise I’m not singling out Christianity. The onus has always been on every religious organisation to explain to the world exactly why we should abandon common sense and believe in the supernatural.

I begin with this declaration of my lack of faith because I have just finished reading Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey, a man who might well want to buy some life insurance if he takes e-mail chain letters from the religious community seriously. It’s a delicious coincidence too wondrous to ignore that I should come to this book immediately after receiving the e-mail. It’s obviously a trick of Satan (the devil not the ice hockey player).

Anyway, here we have a superficially routine story about a human dragged down to Hell except, much to everyone’s surprise, he avoids death. Indeed, he’s soon a regular in the arena fighting all-comers and acting as a hit-man. Yes, in this version of Hell, it seems lower-ranking demons can be killed although I frankly cannot really explain what happens to them after this untimely demise except these new victims end up in Tartarus. Then, thanks to acquiring a set of doors (think the excellent TV serial The Lost Room and you get the idea of being able to go anywhere you will) he gets back to Earth and on to the revenge trail of those who sent him to Hell. He then confirms himself as a kind of Constantine, hobnobbing with angels, magicians and the occasional monster.

Once secure in the knowledge he’s going to be very difficult to kill, it’s left to the author to ratchet up the odds as our hero finds himself in the role of a potential saviour of Earth. It seems one of the reasons for him being relegated to Hell was to free up the playing field for the arrival of some nasties from the outer void. In the ensuing fighting, he encounters some tough characters from the Department of Homeland Security and, with a little help from some friends, takes on the invaders and the humans who opened the door to them. It’s a strong brew and, in structural terms, the novel takes a risk in allowing a significant amount of talking after the climax. Most up-and-at-’em action novels build up to the climax and quit before they have to explain themselves. Kadrey prefers to take his time and debrief us. He also leaves the door open to sequels — not a surprise in these commercialised days.

Were this all, the novel would be a by-the-numbers two-dimensional collection of standard tropes we would rapidly consign to the dumpster. But the reality is rather different. The whole is an engaging interior monologue. At times, it positively crackles with wit and it’s pleasingly fearless in taking on shibboleths. More importantly, it mocks its own assumptions. For example, one of the key problems in science fiction novels when you deal with “door” systems is to ensure you do not step out into the middle of a wall, underwater or two miles in the air. Even if you do manage to synchronise both sides of the door so you can pass through safely, how does it look to interested viewers when people suddenly step into view? Well, Kadrey puts it this way: “How can you see two guys dressed like ushers at Liberace’s funeral walk out of a wall and not react?”

So, while the plot is not much to write home about, the writing itself is singularly pleasing and, for those of you with flexible sensibilities when it comes to books involving Christianity (no fatwas please), it’s an irreverent romp. Naturally, neither Kadrey for writing the book nor I for reviewing it favourably feel threatened by circular e-mails threatening premature death. If you do harbour worries on this point, say prayers should you catch sight of this book on the shelves in bookshops and pass hurriedly by before you succumb to devilish temptation.

There’s an excellent video by Kadrey about this book on You Tube. If you are thinking about buying, it’s well worth a moment of your time.

For the sequels, see:
Aloha From Hell
Devil Said Bang
Kill City Blues
Kill the Dead.

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