June 08, 2017


The Kill Society: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $25.99.

     See, at bottom it’s all pretty simple. “Just because I’m an asshole doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” The words are those of Sandman Slim, and the self-evaluation is right on target. And “target” is exactly the right word, since Sandman Slim has “target” written all over him in Richard Kadrey’s ninth book about him, The Kill Society. But no problem, because pretty much everyone else has “target” written on him, or her, or it, as the case may be. So much to see. So much to do. So much to destroy.

     So maybe it’s not so simple after all. “If the Church had afterlife travel agents, they could make a fortune. Pay now, then later see the most colorful views of damnation from a double-decker, air-conditioned tour bus. Stop for lunch at the damned soul deli, where you can try Phil, your racist neighbor, on whole wheat. Or roast hot dogs over the lava pits where crooked politicians and show-business accountants do synchronized-shrieking shows every…well…forever. Don’t forget to tip your driver on the way out or you’ll end up with the other stingy bastards, growing gold teeth and pulling them out with pliers for eternity while other stingy dumb-asses pound them into coins with their faces.” Kadrey’s prose goes way beyond purple into the ultraviolet. Or, more accurately, ultraviolent. But The Kill Society is no prissy Anthony Burgess Clockwork Orange wannabe book: this is straight-out murderous fun, with equal emphasis on the death stuff and the enjoyment.

     Not that James Stark (aka Sandman Slim) has much fun in this episode, since he is dead. Genuinely dead this time. This is scarcely his first visit to Hell and its environs, but this time he has been sent there by a weapon that has actually succeeded in destroying his Earth form. That happened at the end of the previous book, The Perdition Score, and gets a brief recap here before Kadrey gets to the meat of the matter. And there is a great deal of meat, most of it off the bone and flying every which way. The basic plot, at least for most of the book, involves a quest through the nothingness of a place called the Tenebrae, led by a man, or more accurately a being, called the Magistrate. Just what is being sought, and why, is never explained to the Magistrate’s followers; indeed, at one point the Magistrate says, “The crusade itself is important. Not the crusaders.” And that leaves Stark, who has been there and done that more often than all the rest of them put together, to note, “And there it is. The voice of a true believer. Nothing matters but him and his obsession. …I met freaks like this everywhere. Everyone has. Not just in Hell and not just in wars. They’re people you pass on the street. A preacher, a grocery-store manager, a parent. Anyone with a vision and enough of a vicious streak to make it come true no matter what they have to destroy or who they have to chew up and spit out along the way.” This is vintage Kadrey: take a completely bizarre, outré situation and relate it through an ultra-noir lens to everyday life, forcing readers not only to suspend disbelief but also to see the mundane from a different, thoroughly skewed angle.

     The quest for whatever-it-is takes up most of the book, but when the whatever-it-is is in fact found, it turns out not to be what the Magistrate thought it would be, and additional mayhem inevitably ensues, and the whole shebang leads to – where else? – Heaven. Yes, Sandman Slim gets to Heaven in The Kill Society, and no, the experience does not do much for him: “I’m really trying to not start out in Heaven by killing an angel.” There is a war going on in Heaven, and there are good angels and bad ones,  and ones that change sides, and just figuring out who’s who and what’s what takes most of Sandman Slim’s brainpower, which is a trifle on the, um, slim side. Which brings us back to, “Just because I’m an asshole doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” Stark makes the comment after challenging an overwhelmingly powerful archangel to a duel that Stark is sure to lose, despite the bravado of his next comment: “This kind of thing is pretty much all I’ve done for the last twelve years.” That is scarcely enough, but one thing to remember is that however many times Sandman Slim is killed, and however long he stays dead, there is always someone or something that needs his unique talents badly enough to find a way to revive him. And that brings us, and him, to the uber-potent and hyper-frightening organization called Wormwood, a simply marvelous amalgam of all that is wrong with unfettered capitalism. Wormwood, a shadowy presence throughout The Kill Society, provides a perfect setup for Kadrey’s next foray into the world, or rather worlds, of Sandman Slim. “You’ve been dead a long time,” a character says very near this book’s conclusion. Yes, but not long enough for the bad guys. As they will definitely discover next time. Stay tuned.

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