At one point in William Hjortsberg‘s masterful horror novel, Falling Angel, Epiphany Proudfoot, a 17-year-old voodoo priestess, tells the detective hero Harry Angel, “you sure know a lot about the city.” The city in question is the New York of 1959, and if Angel knows a lot about this crazy burg, then Hjortsberg, in the course of this tale, demonstrates that he knows even more.
While much has been said of this book’s scary elements — its voodoo ceremonies and Black Mass meeting and horrible murders — what impressed me most about this tale is the incredible attention to realistic detail that the author invests it with. I don’t know if the author grew up in this town in the ’50s or just did a remarkable research job, but the reader really does get the impression that this book (which came out in 1978) was written a few decades earlier. Roosevelt Island is called Welfare Island, quite correctly; street names are given the names they had 45 years ago; subway ads are described that I can dimly recall from my youth at the time; one-cent peanut-vending machines are in the subways (boy, does that take me back!); and on and on.
This is the type of book in which if something is described, you can bet your bottom buck that it really existed. For example, at one point our hero walks into a 42nd Street theatre called Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus. I checked it out; it was really there in the late ’50s. You can learn a lot about the city as it was by reading this fast-moving tale; it’s almost like a history lesson wrapped up in a hardboiled voodoo thriller.
And what a thriller this is! Even without the incredible attention to detail, this book would be a winner. Harry Angel is hired by Lou Cyphre (get it?) to track down ’40s crooner Johnny Favorite, and by the time Angel is through with his quest, we have been treated to all sorts of oddball NYC characters and grisly doings. Many scenes impress, most notably the late-night Central Park voodoo ceremony, the Black Mass in the abandoned subway station, and an off-season walk through the Coney Island midway. The book is justifiably included in Stephen Jones‘s and Kim Newman‘s excellent overview volume, Horror: The Hundred Best Books. It works on many levels — as a thriller, as a scarifier, as a Faustian object lesson — and succeeds on all of them. I haven’t seen the “Angel Heart” movie that was made from this wonderful book, but can’t imagine it being any better. This book deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. Fortunately, it’s still in print, as it well should be. I highly recommend it.