March 27, 2008


The Outlaw Demon Wails. By Kim Harrison. Eos. $24.95.

      There used to be a sort of guilty pleasure in reading Kim Harrison’s books about the Hollows, that part of Cincinnati (yes, Cincinnati) where werewolves, vampires and witches roam at will, where demons terrorize the night and competing human and supernatural police forces try to keep things calm, and where the pizza is delicious. But Harrison’s novels of the Hollows – The Outlaw Demon Wails is the sixth – have gone thoroughly respectable, climbing the New York Times bestseller list, for goodness’ sake. The guiltiness of the pleasure is gone, as is the feeling of discovering a truly outstanding writer who happens to favor plots with a distinctly sardonic supernatural tinge.

      The pleasure itself remains, though, and as Harrison’s style becomes more fluid and her tale-telling even more skilled, it increases. The Outlaw Demon Wails is right in line with her other books: it continues the adventures of Rachel Morgan, witch and freelance bounty hunter and very clearly Harrison’s alter ego (from her red hair to her body shape to her predilections in clothing to, perhaps, other things evident in Rachel’s behavior but not discussed in Harrison’s official biography). This tightly structured novel is even more adept than its predecessors at weaving together multiple plot strands. “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past,” William Faulkner famously wrote, and that is one pervasive theme of The Outlaw Demon Wails. But another quotation captures the flavor of the book even more clearly: “Nothing that was worthy in the past departs; no truth or goodness realized by man ever dies, or can die” (Thomas Carlyle). The flip side of this – and it matters not a whit whether Harrison has ever read Carlyle or Faulkner – is that nothing unworthy in the past ever dies, either. In The Outlaw Demon Wails, Harrison dredges up old loves and lovers, old hatreds, old feuds and alliances, and moves them – along with many new plot elements – in new, ever more complicated directions. And she does all this while keeping the stylistic trademarks that place her books several cuts above others of whatever genre hers are in (what that is, is by no means clear). Harrison has humor: her books pay backhanded tribute to the Clint Eastwood mystique, as is evident both in her narrative approach and from titles such as The Outlaw Demon Wails, which recalls The Outlaw Josey Wales. Harrison has sexiness: Rachel can do witchcraft, but she is also an intensely emotional and sexual young woman, and her thoughts (and some of her actions) often range from flirtatious to genuinely hot. And Harrison has a knack for providing tiny details that make her characters seem genuine, as when competent but perennially stressed Rachel, feeling blue, goes to her mom’s house to eat Lucky Charms cereal, saving the pink hearts for last.

      Most of all, Harrison has real style – not specifically literary style (these are not “great” books in any traditional sense), but a style that lets her create characters who stretch the norms of supernatural novels almost to the breaking point. These characters make you care about them; they live and breathe (well, except for the undead vampires – but even they show Harrison’s skill, for she creates both “living vamps” and undead ones, and skillfully explores and exploits their differences as plot elements). Minor characters from prior books suddenly flower in this one – notably Rachel’s mother, who here proves to be not at all what readers of earlier books would expect her to be, but whose filling-out is logical and intelligent. Gigantic elements of earlier books, such as a terrifying werewolf curse, return here in muted but still significant form. Even the underlying reality of the world of the Hollows, in which humans coexist with no-longer-secret supernatural beings who actually belong to different species, remains crucial even though it is explained in some throwaway lines about “the Turn – the nightmarish three years following the supernatural species coming out of the closet” after “humanity began dying of a virus carried by a bioengineered tomato that was supposed to feed the growing population of the third-world countries.”

      Evil – real, frightening evil, not the cartoonish kind – reemerges here as well, as it does in all Harrison’s Hollows books, as the unrelenting enmity of the demon Algaliarept forces Rachel into a truly terrifying bargain. At what cost, and to what benefit? That is in large part what The Outlaw Demon Wails is about, as Rachel tries to save her life and soul while tracking down the vicious killer of her living-vampire boyfriend, Kisten (whose death was the shocking climax of Harrison’s previous book, For a Few Demons More). But even Kisten’s death fades somewhat into the background as the book’s canvas widens toward the end and a whole new set of complexities emerges in Rachel’s life. A cast of characters that Harrison fans will feel highly comfortable with – the pixy Jenks and his family, the living vampire Ivy (Rachel’s roommate and occasional blood-but-not-sex partner), elf and rescued demon familiar Ceri, and many others – populates this book. Harrison weaves in their backgrounds so skillfully that first-time readers can actually pick up The Outlaw Demon Wails and understand most of what is going on and most of what caused it to occur. But new readers may well wonder at a world, filled with such weirdness, in which vampires make chili in old slow cookers. And that’s fine. Harrison’s books are not only wonder-filled but also wonder-full.

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