The fantasy writer and fetish-art photographer Richard Kadrey’s cult hit Sandman Slim has just come out in its first paperback edition from Eos, a Harper Collins imprint. Having found out about Kadrey’s work via Twitter, I was eager to read this intriguing book of which I had heard so much. And I wasn’t disappointed.
James Stark materialises like a fucked-up phoenix in a pile of burning trash in a Hollywood park. Azazel’s secret hit-man has just escaped from Hell, which nobody is supposed to be able to do. But then again, he wasn’t dead anyway; he was just there to provide the in-house gladiatorial entertainment for the damned. He’s an angry but not so young man who was sent Downtown eleven years earlier by his Nemesis, fellow magician Mason Faim, and the magic circle they once both belonged to, the Sub Rosa. Faim not only condemned Stark to hell but he murdered the latter’s girlfriend, Alice, the only human being who was ever precious to him. So revenge is the one reason for Stark to stay on Earth. But before he can finish his Charles Bronson killfest he gets railroaded into a battle between Heaven and something far worse than Lucifer and his Hellions, a Herculean mission to put right God’s Big Fuckup. And Heaven’s not necessarily completely onside. After everything he goes through he comes to feel that maybe Hell ain’t a bad place to be.
Stark, or Sandman Slim, is a hero in the tradition of Hammett and Chandler. He is as tough and cynical as his predecessors Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and just as romantic in his determination to live according to a moral code. Beneath the cynicism is the disappointed idealist, the self-denying gallant knight who will defend a helpless woman to the death and back up a friend to the hilt; the unbendable ethicist walking tall in a fallen world of moral blindness and spiritual weakness. Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, down the streets of both Hell and LA – and maybe there’s no difference between them. But there’s even more to Stark than being an honest vigilante with the power of the weird (after all, we are in the realm of Urban Fantasy here) just as a backstreet clinician and his assistant can be creatures of magic and Eugène Vidocq, legendary crook and founder of the Sûreté, can be an immortal alchemist too.
The tale is as tersely told and hardboiled as all fine detective narratives ought to be. The prose is no-nonsense but not workaday, certainly no Stephen King-esque equivalent of a McDonald’s burger – Kadrey’s style is the proper mode for the genre and crafted with intelligence and wit. A smart and aphoristic street-wisdom is essential, of course, and such gems as ‘the only real difference between an enemy and a friend is the day of the week’ are plentiful.
The set pieces are pitched just right, offering enough action and ultraviolence to satisfy but never overlong, and the battles are never too easy for the hero: he has to take many hits delivered with apocalyptic force; but in the proper archetypal manner set out by the narrative arc of the original agon of Olympic wrestling contests Stark always emerges victorious or at least alive. Perhaps Kadrey knows Barthes’ essay on the semiotics of wrestling; certainly his fight scenes act out the schema perfectly.
There are no wasted words, no padding, no flab. Every page offers something for the reader’s fun and edification in the shape of magic, murder and mayhem. Read Sandman Slim and you will want to taste the food in The Bamboo House of Dolls, barter for something beyond strange in Mr. Muninn’s otherworldly shop and enjoy the depravity and decadence on tap at the Avila Club. You’ll definitely want some of the wickedly versatile weapons and magical doodads that Stark and his helpers and adversaries have access to. And as for The Room of Thirteen Doors, no better rapid-transit system could be devised by man. The Star Trek transporter beam is a mere penny-farthing in comparison.
So everything necessary for a great piece of Urban Fantasy is here: the romantic hero on a personal quest, a bizarre roster of friends and foes, some magical, some ordinarily human (you might even pity poor Kasabian, the ultimate talking head), fun toys such as potions, talismans and prodigiously lethal weaponry, and the inevitable showdown with the arch-enemy. This final battle is a real stand-up bout of metaphysticuffs in the weirdest arena that warfare was ever waged in, and well worth the 300-page build-up. The story zips along from beginning to climax, stuffed with all the right ingredients but using them as archetypes rather than clichés – a hard trick to pull off, and done so with suspense, pathos and humour.
Kill the Dead, the next instalment in the series of Sandman Slim’s adventures, which I hope will be a long-running one, is due for release in October 2010. I won’t be hanging about waiting for the paperback edition this time.