I still have the first Stephen King book I ever bought. Unfortunately, it is not a hardback first edition, but the first paperback version of ‘Salem’s Lot (well used as you can see). And I will always remember how I chanced to buy it. It was late summer in 1976, and I was going on a trip. I didn’t have anything to read, so I stopped in a supermarket to grab a book. The first one to catch my eye had a black cover with the embossed face of a girl and a single red drop of blood. There was no title. I had to pick it up and see what it was. And once it was in my hands and I read the words on the back, “The town knew darkness…but no one dared talk about the high, sweet, evil laughter of a child…and the sucking sounds…,” it was as good as sold.
(I have a daughter named Carrie. She was born in March of 1976. The ‘Salem’s Lot paperback came out in August of 1976. If she had been born a year later, I would have read Stephen King’s first novel, and she probably would have had a different name. But it all worked out, because Carrie just seems to fit her; she is a Stephen King fan; and an original framed Carrie movie poster decorated her bedroom all through high school—now surely worth far more than my tattered paperback.)
So, what does all this have to do with Sandman Slim? It’s all in the marketing. I am sure I would have eventually begun reading Stephen King; in fact, since I started writing about books in 1977, I have reviewed every book he has written, except, for some reason, The Dark Half. But it was a clever marketing idea—black cover, no title—that got me to pick up and buy that first novel. And it was a clever marketing idea that got me to pick up Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim and read it.
Does size matter? You bet it does. Sandman Slim is a really strange looking book. Most mass market paperbacks come in at approximately 4 inches by 6¾ inches, while most hardbacks are either 5¾ inches by 8½ inches or 6½ inches by 9½ inches. Sandman Slim, a hardback book, is approximately 5¼ inches by 7½ inches, which puts it in a limbo that is nearly unique. Put a paperback on top of a normal hardback and imagine something in between, and you’ll have a good idea of what the book looks like.
So, not knowing anything about Richard Kadrey or Sandman Slim, I picked up the book because its size made it stick out like the black no-title cover of ‘Salem’s Lot did over 30 years ago. If not for the marketing ploy of publishing the novel in this weird format, I might never have given it a try. And I would have missed out on a lot of fun.
Now that you know what the book looks like, here is a bit about what’s inside. James Stark, the anti-hero star of the show, is the most talented magician on earth. He has just returned to Hollywood after an 11-year engagement in hell. We’re talking about the literal hell here, not a resort in the Poconos. While he was “Downtown” (Stark’s euphemism for Hades), he first battled hellbeasts as a gladiator. Then he worked himself up to the post of chief assassin for one of Lucifer’s top lieutenants—yes, in Kadrey’s hell, even the fallen angels can be knocked off and sent to deeper and nastier destinations.
Stark stole a key that opens any of the “Thirteen Doors” and takes the owner wherever he wants to go. That’s how he escaped from hell, and how he gets around LA, when he is not stealing luxurious cars or motorcycles. Now that he is back, he plans to kill all of the jealous magicians who bargained with the devil to send him Downtown and then killed his girlfriend. As you might have guessed Stark, aka Sandman Slim, is not the happiest of campers.
Yet, despite the fact that he is the most adept magic man in town, a lot has happened in 11 years, and before he can accomplish his objectives, he has to conquer technological advances like cell phones and Blackberrys. Plus the folks he is looking for have moved on and laid booby traps for him wherever he goes.
When he finally gets on the right track, he starts out by decapitating a former colleague who now runs a video rental store. By keeping the cigarette-smoking head alive, he has someone to talk to about the past and to get a few hints about where to find the rest of his prospective victims. He has a place to stay in the apartment above the store, and the Goth girl who manages the place can help him with his high tech needs.
From this point on Stark is involved in non-stop episodic adventures mixed in with graphic and nasty flashbacks about his sojourn with demons and damned souls Downtown.
The best part of this book, though, is the way Kadrey turns a phrase. He certainly has a way with words. Here are just a couple of representative passages.
- Stark stops by his favorite bar for a late dinner: “I order carne asada and Carols brings me the meat with beans rice and guacamole. It’s like God left his lunch in the microwave and you get to eat it.”
- Much later in the book Stark is preparing to do battle with a houseful of demons and magicians to save some angels they are planning to kill and, thus, set off the end of the world: “I finish my cigarette and start getting ready. I strap on the body armor, which feels tough enough, but closes with Velcro straps. I know this is state-of-the art gear, but I’d feel more confident if it wasn’t held together with the same stuff they use to fasten kids’ sneakers.”
There are a lot of lines like those two, which makes the book worth the price of admission even if the story weren’t so darned much fun.
So I don’t care what kind of a cover they put on Richard Kadrey’s next novel, or whether it looks like a brick or a book; I’ll be picking it up and reading it.
Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly in the paper since 1988. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book, it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.