Song of Kali was marketed as a horror novel during a resurgence in horror fiction catalyzed by the successes of writers such as Stephen King and Anne Rice. Although the book contains many scenes of genuine terror and horror, it is in some ways an unconventional example of the genre. Although dark fantasy has often drawn upon the supernatural, and often the mythic, for its sources, this novel is unusual in its application of a specific non-Western myth to a realistically depicted contemporary setting. Other horror novels, including F. Paul Wilson’s The Tomb (1984) and Noel Scanlon’s Black Ashes (1986), have turned to Indian mythology for inspiration. Song of Kali is also uncommon in its ending, with the protagonist suffering a deep loss yet rejecting violence rather than choosing retribution.
Song of Kali does exhibit many characteristic traits of horror fiction of the 1970’s and beyond. It is graphic in its depiction of the horrors it presents, and it shows people confronted with pure evil. In addition, like some works of horror of the late twentieth century such as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), it allows for doubt as to whether the experiences are truly supernatural or instead can be explained in other ways.
Song of Kali is a remarkable accomplishment for a first novel. In it, Dan Simmons demonstrates a sure grasp of style and of narrative pacing and technique as well as an extensive knowledge of Indian culture. Readers were lukewarm in their response to the novel, perhaps because they resisted its unconventional subject and resolution. Critics and writers almost universally praised it, and it received the World Fantasy Award for best novel. In his subsequent novels in fantasy and science fiction, including the Hugo-winning Hyperion (1990), Simmons continued to unite a literary approach with serious themes and captivating plots.