Richard Kadrey is back with another tale of James Stark, Hell (or at least the immediate vicinity thereof), and the war of angels. If you’ve read The Perdition Score, you’ll know that Stark is dead, again. This time, however, it’s in a way that’s a little more permanent than any other time he’s been “Downtown.” In The Kill Society, Stark is stripped of (some) of his powers, left without his friends and loved ones, and dropped in a situation that’s so far from what he’s experienced previously, he has to do the unthinkable – make friends. I sat down with author Richard Kadrey to talk about what makes Stark tick and what the future holds for our favorite monster.
Fair warning: if you haven’t read The Kill Society yet (And why haven’t you? It’s been a month! Get on it!), there are scads of spoilers ahead.
The beginning of the novel starts the same as The Perdition Score ended, with Stark wandering towards an unknown cloud of dust. We’ve spent lots of time with Stark and the expectation is that he’ll draw on his knowledge of Hell to quickly acclimate to the situation, no matter what presents itself. Except…he doesn’t. This is the Tenebrae, a blasted wilderness in-between Hell and Limbo that Stark has only glimpsed in the past. He’s off balance here, weakened from being killed in the real world, and when he wanders towards the rising cloud, it’s with a sense of finality instead of the cocksure bravado we’ve grown used to.
The change in scenery is more than just a plot device, however. Kadrey says “I wanted to show more of the Tenebrae in this book. What it looks like, how it effects people. But it also matches Stark’s psyche here. He’s lost in the wilderness. He’s been dead, but he’s never been this kind of dead.”
What’s waiting for Stark in the cloud will inform the rest of the novel. For anyone who’s looked at the cover, it will come as no surprise that it’s not a roving sandstorm; but The Havoc – a marauding band of Hellion deserters and lost souls that roam the Tenebrae on a holy mission. “Everyone keeps using Fury Road to describe them.” Kadrey muses. “But I wasn’t thinking Mad Max at all. They’re more like the bands of soldiers that would futilely wander the country after the Civil War, mixed with a bit of the European crusades.”
Led by the Magistrate, a huckster/roadside preacher figure The Havoc is scouring the wilderness outside of Hell looking for a forgotten weapon from the original War of Heaven. His mission? Why, to kill God of course.
But saving Mr. Munin is far from Stark’s mind as he tests the limits of what he can still do, what he must do to survive, and meets up with old friends. Father Traven is back and gives Stark someone to protect, someone to whom he can anchor his mortal past. Acting the guardian has always provided Stark his moral core and is something that Kadrey wanted to play with in The Kill Society.
“He’s coming to grips with his humanity. The Sandman Slim series is about the rehabilitation of a monster. You are the age of your greatest trauma and he spent his formative years in Hell. Emotionally, he’s stuck at 19. He’s had to learn how to actually connect with people. Stark is never going to be normal. He’s never going to be the guy who shops at Whole Foods or does Pilates; but he wants to be a better person.”
What the Future Holds for Sandman Slim
Candy is a big part of Stark’s rehabilitation. And while we don’t get to see much of her in The Kill Society, Kadrey has plans for our favorite Jade. “Candy is a monster; but in a way she’s more human that Stark. I want to do a solo story for her where we focus on the history of the Jades.” While a lot of the warp and weave of the Sandman Slim universe is based off of actual religious history and mythology (Kadrey loves throwing in the odd reference that only a few religious scholars will recognize), the Jades are Kadrey’s exclusive creation: a mashup of succubi, Japanese Jorogumo, and a few other shape-shifting, energy-sucking monsters.
But just because Candy isn’t around for the action, that doesn’t mean that Stark doesn’t have a strong female foil to help balance his sometimes over-the-top machismo (which makes so much more sense when you think of him as an emotional 19-year-old). His original love, Alice, is back and this time has enough divine power that she’s the one protecting Stark instead of the other way around. It’s something that Kadrey had been wanting to do for a while. “Alice didn’t have the agency she should have in the previous books. I wanted her to be able to cut loose in a way where she wasn’t just connected to Stark. It was her choice to come back. With her and with Traven, I wanted them to have the endings they deserved.”
As the novel progresses it becomes clear that there’s more than just the inconvenience of being mortal weighing on Stark. He is responsible for the chaos and turmoil around him. It was his time as Satan that laid the groundwork for the current Divine War (the one that’s given the Magistrate his purpose). The lost souls massing at the golden gates of Heaven are there because he set everyone free from Hell. It’s all part of a massive plotline that Kadrey has sketched out in a master notebook. “Heaven plays a part in the end of the series.” Kadrey confides. “But you never get to see a lot of it. In the passion plays that toured Europe, Hell was the big sell. Hell is chaos and chaos is fun. Heaven is stability and no one wants to see that.”
How Kadrey Crafts His Novels
Kadrey’s notebooks are one of the things that drew me to follow him on Instagram (not to mention his intensely atmospheric photography). They contain elaborate plot maps, interconnected and crossed out and highlighted and tantalizingly worn. “Physical notebooks help keep me from being overwhelmed. It gets my brain working. I like to use Scrivener as well because I can keep all kinds of reference materials in there. Physical models for characters. Photos that inspire scenes. And you can play around with the text structure easily. But there are different muscles in play when you work with physical notebooks. Whenever you get stuck, you can change something physically in the way you work and you’re able to move forward.”
As far as real-world inspirations outside of religious tracts, Kadrey turns to movies; but not just anything. “Black and white movies spur your imagination. They’re dreamlike and don’t knock you out of what you’re writing.” Music also plays a part. “Each book has a different soundtrack (apart from Lustmord, which I listen to for every book). For The Kill Society I listened to a lot of old punk metal and doom jazz, Bohren & der Club of Gore’s album Black Earth, especially.” The music helps him round out the setting of the book, reminds Kadrey to make things work on a more visceral level. “You should know more than what it looks like. You should know what it feels like to be there.”
Music informs the cadence and pace of the novel as well. “Editors hate me.” Kadrey laughs. “Grammar isn’t the first thing I think of when I’m writing. I break the rules, count syllables, and read things out loud to make sure there’s a certain cadence, that there’s a flow going.”
But it’s the artists Dali and Duchamp that Kadrey credits with providing his spark. “As a child, I saw an exhibit of their work and it fundamentally changed me. It was there that I got the first hints of the real world of adults. A shadow world beyond the banal. I saw things differently after that.”
All of this comes together to provide readers with a white-knuckle experience in The Kill Society. From an opening so visceral that you can practically feel the revving engines in your bones, to an ending that will have you cursing out loud, it’s a read that proves that there’s still a lot we don’t yet know about Sandman Slim (and even less that he knows about himself). It’s a testament to Kadrey’s mastery of the craft that, even after nine books, I still read the final page and am immediately anxious for more.
Thanks to Richard Kadrey for taking the time to speak with me during his busy book tour. A sample of The Kill Society was provided for consideration in this article. Opinions are my own.