BOOK REVIEW: Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Take a huge, honking blender and throw in a hardboiled Dashiell Hammett, some Frank Miller neo-noir, a shocksploitation film with an actual plot, your most fiendish revenge fantasy (come on, admit it, you have one), George Carlin’s blackest humor, and his seven dirty words poised for rapid-fire action. Hit the pulverize button, and consider the devilish blend.

But you’re not finished, not yet. Put the miasma on the stove, and reduce it until its intensity doubles. This should just about produce the stuff of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels, Sandman Slim (Eos, 2009), now in film development by the Dino De Laurentiis Company, and Kill the Dead, released this month.

If you dare read any further, you surely have the gut for Kadrey’s supernatural revenge fantasies, so don’t bother: Just go buy the books. You’ll love them.

If you are not repelled, but remain undecided, read on, but consider yourself forewarned. …

Kadrey has been writing for years, productively but without broad acclaim: short stories, novels and nonfiction. And Kadrey does have the studied persona of a San Francisco fringe dweller: beefy and tat-ridden; a fetish photographer; literate in an edgy genre that might stick him in basement readings with boutique bookstore lurkers and suspension devotees — if he weren’t too coolly disdainful. Or so you might imagine.

But then Kadrey created Sandman Slim. Oh, he still smacks of fringe, but something clicked between Sandman Slim and the public consciousness when the character launched in 2009. Was it the antihero’s snarky gloom that resonated with the foreclosed victims of a dismal economy?

Nah, poor schmucks couldn’t afford books.

Was it the ire of the great unwashed, who assuaged their angst with rabid antagonism toward anything even vaguely establishment, a sort of Tea Party for the urban fantasy genre?

Could be — that and Kadrey’s talent for writing wildly voyeuristic scenes of revenge-fueled mayhem, with tongue stapled firmly to cheek. His only weakness is lack of a proofreader.

Nonetheless, in Sandman Slim — the Hell-born moniker of James Stark, who didn’t die but did spend eleven years detained in Lucifer’s realm before being spewed back to Earth — Kadrey has crafted a barely appealing, powerfully intriguing bastard of an antihero. Stark is scarred and wearied from fighting demons in Hell, but he is determined to vomit his vengeance on those who wronged him, the spatter mere icing on the rotting bowels of Los Angeles.

In Kill the Dead, Stark has settled in and needs to pay the rent, so he takes a part-time gig, working security for Lucifer (in town developing a bio-pic). The City of Angels is poised to be devoured by its own demons, unless Stark can find the source of a steady flow of zombies and staunch it.

Despite his good intentions, Stark thinks less only of himself than he does of the city’s magical elite, the fallen angels who take sides using people as pawns, all matter of undead monsters, and the unknowing humans who scrape an existence off the degradation of L.A.’s decomposing landscape. He subscribes to the Sartrean thought that l'enfer, c'est les autre, Hell is other people. Indeed, Stark suffers no one who gets in his way, because basically, both life and death stink, but it’s a stench he’s used to:

“The universe is a meat grinder and we’re just pork in designer shoes, keeping busy so we can pretend we’re not all headed for the sausage factory. Maybe I’ve been hallucinating this whole time and there is no Heaven and Hell. Instead of having to choose between God and the devil, maybe our only real choice comes down to link or patty.”

Such is the humor of James Stark, sardonic and cynical, still damaged from his time down below. Yet his work is never done. As he worries about his nemesis in Hell, Stark confronts an endless array of evil-doers on Earth, where God is a fickle father, where Lucifer is tired of keeping a lid on his beasties, where an angel is as likely to guard over you as gut you, where the line between good and evil is non-existent — and evil is as seductive as revenge. But a final word of warning.

As the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote of Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi revenge film, Inglourious Basterds: ”When evil is presented as well and as elegantly as [Tarantino] does, we can easily be seduced by it.”

Perhaps that is Kadrey’s intent?

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Crossposted at the North County Times