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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

October Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons

This 1983 debut novel by American writer Dan Simmons is a supernatural horror story surrounding a poet scholar and his quest to find a famous but elusive Indian poet presumed to be dead. Robert Luczak, an editor for a high-brow American literary magazine, travels with his wife Amrita and their infant daughter Victoria to Calcutta in order to retrieve a mysterious manuscript written by M. Das, a famous Indian poet who mysteriously disappeared eight years ago. During his travels, not only does Robert discover that the presumed dead poet is actually still alive, but that there is an underground, religious death-cult dedicated to the goddess Kali whose far-reaching arms touch nearly all aspects of society. As he dives further and further into his search, unearthing a grand and deadly conspiracy, Robert, as well as his wife and young daughter, fall into the hands of the dangerous conspirators, the cultists whose demonic agenda threatens their safety, their sanity, and all they have ever known. Their wild, tempestuous trip culminates in an unspeakable tragedy, one which changes everything.

Dan Simmons is a long-time favorite author of mine; I had first read The Terror years ago and realized that this was someone different, someone whose imagination and masterly prose elevates his work into the upper echelons of literary horror and science fiction. Long hearing that this was one of his best and most horrific works, I had to pick it up. While it was certainly an enthralling read, inevitably comparing it to his later works, which I couldn’t help but do, emphasized its “debut-ness”; the writing was solid, engaging, though at times a bit distancing, tedious, and sluggish. However, it was a rather scary novel, though not as scary as The Terror or The Abominable, two of my favorites of his. Overall, it was a good novel, certainly impressive for a debut, though not one of my favorites. Thankfully, Simmons has a long catalog of work, and I can’t wait to dive into some of his other doubtlessly horrific masterpieces.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

This 1967 second novel by American novelist Ira Levin is a psychological horror story fueled by the most terrifying circumstances that a new parent could ever imagine. The novel follows Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young, newly married couple who move into the Bramford, a renovated New York City apartment complex with a dark history involving witchcraft and murder. The couple quickly meet their neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet, a quirky, mysterious, somewhat nosy, elderly couple with whom Guy becomes great friends with and often entertains them in their apartment and attends parties at theirs. Once Rosemary becomes pregnant, the Castevets, eager to help, engage themselves in her pregnancy, connecting her to their private obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein, and Minnie begins providing daily herbal cocktails as a nutritional aid for Rosemary. But soon, Rosemary begins to grow sick, experiencing intense pains that render her all but immobile, and she begins to suspect that the Castevets and their doctor have ulterior intentions. And as mysterious events start happening, ones with demonic associations, these ulterior motives begin to take a sinister, devilish shape. In a horrifying denouement which spans an exploration of marriage, agency, and satanism, Rosemary discovers that the ones whom she trusted the most are in fact the ones who intend to do her the most harm.

The novel is one credited for catalyzing the “horror boom” of the 1960’s and is one of the bestselling horror novels of the decade. The film adaptation, starring a young Mia Farrow as Rosemary, premiered a year after the novel’s publication and immediately became a cult classic of the horror genre. And the film very closely follows the novel, capturing what I think is the novel’s greatest source of power: its suspense. Levin’s immaculate prose–imaginative and meticulous attention to detail, powerful description, and an incredible insight into human relations–captures the suspense and psychological thrill of the novel which nurtures and incubates the unique, immobilizing terror which strips away the common veneer of marriage life, exposing the darkness and anxiety that lies underneath. The novel is an incredible, almost beautiful, exploration of such anxieties of American life, though twisted and tangled with the near-universal fear of Satan and witchcraft. I was captivated from beginning to end; I truly could not put it down. The story, the form, the brilliant horror of it, propels this novel into the greats, truly one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

This 2019 eighth novel by British author, poet, playwright, and academic Bernadine Evaristo is a sweeping story of the interconnected lives of twelve women over the course of multiple generations. Characters span young black college students grappling with issues of identity, class, and sexuality; middle-aged mothers struggling with their children, work, romantic affairs, and the burgeoning challenge of traditional sentiment clashing with modern sensibilities; and past generations of grandparents forced to confront issues of misogyny, racism, and meaning amid a world which strives to thwart all sense of agency, upward mobility, and education. In short, the novel “is a magnificent portrayal of the intersections of identity and a moving and hopeful story of a group of black British women”; but at length, it is an incredibly deep, insightful, beautiful mosaic of lives which are too often sequestered to the margins of literature and culture, complex lives filled with moments of horrific loss, violence, and sorrow, as well as rebirth, protest, and extraordinary triumph in the face of systemic oppression.

The novel won Evaristo the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction as well as Fiction Book of the Year at the 2020 British Book Awards where Evaristo also won Author of the Year. Barack Obama even listed it as one of his favorite books of 2019. It’s easy to understand the widespread praise; the novel is not only a masterpiece of both content and form, but a truly brilliant work with far-reaching cultural significance. The form of the novel lies between poetry and prose. Chapters are grouped into four sections which center around a specific character, each narrated through short, concise vignettes comprised of sparsely-punctuated sentences which flow into one another; these short passages are delineated by paragraph spaces and indentations. Dialogue is almost always relayed in a reported, indirect speech, and each sentence, save those that begin with names, starts without capitalization. The form reflects the inherent “network” of the characters, exploring notions of both dispersion and interconnectivity. Beyond themes of intersectionality, racism, misogyny, classism, sexuality, and a litany of others, the novel exemplifies the concept of transmodernity which, as philosopher Rosa María Rodríguez Magda asserts, “can illuminate gnoseological, sociological, ethical, and aesthetic aspects of our present.” In lieu of spatial and temporal congruity inherent in conventional narration, Evaristo interweaves past and present experiences which traverse time and space, entangling events and characters to portray the “interconnectedness, transnationalism, and accelerated temporality” of the postmodern age. That the novel contains such an elegant intellectualism while retaining accessibility and readability is a testament to the brilliance of Evaristo’s craft. It is a novel that breaks boundaries–literary, cultural, social, and political. And it was easily one of the best books I’ve ever read, certainly a forerunner for one of the best I’ve read this year. Truly magnificent.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

This 1971 fifth novel by American writer William Peter Blatty is widely regarded as one of the most terrifying novels in popular culture. Famous actress Chris MacNeil is living in Washington DC, on location for a new film when her twelve-year-old daughter Regan begins exhibiting bizarre behavior. Aggression, obscenities, violent spasms, and a litany of unexplainable phenomena ensue and increasingly grow worse. A string of doctors and psychiatrists perform test after test to determine the horror that ails Regan but to avail. Young Regan is possessed by a spirit, a devil, that ravages her body and mind with neither reprieve nor relent. Father Karras, a young Jesuit priest at Georgetown University, summoned to help drive out the evil entity, becomes roped into the madness, caught in the powerful clash between good and evil, fighting against the forces of unspeakable iniquity. Running alongside Regan’s demonic devolution is a grim detective story–an investigation of a beastly murder. When famed film director Burke Dennings, a close friend of Chris, turns up dead, Detective William Kinderman is on the case, and with each cryptic clue discovered, he falls deeper and deeper in a nightmarish web of unanswerable questions.

Two years after the book’s publication, the film adaptation premiered with garnered an incredible public reception, from those believing it to be a masterpiece, to those claiming it was the work of the devil, understandably so, as the novel itself was inspired by the 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe, a famous, real-life case of demonic possession. Blatty’s novel, teeming with meticulous medical and religious detail, historical anecdotes, and scientific explanation, is brilliant researched and rendered with Blatty’s impressive story-telling and imagination, makes the novel one of the greatest in the annals of horror literature. Blatty’s prose is engrossing, masterly, and seizes the reader with unwavering intensity, demanding attention and engagement. The characters are so real, so rounded, that with each frightening twist and turn, the reader finds himself experiencing the pain, turmoil, and impossible tribulations alongside them. And the investigation that runs parallel to the demonic series of events fuels the thrill that thrusts the novel into the mystery as much as the horror genre. It was such a great book; kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time; I could not put it down, and I can’t wait to revisit again and again in the years to come.

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