Kill the Dead, Richard Kadrey’s second Sandman Slim adventure, didn’t impress me as much as the first one did. I think I’ve hit my zombie threshold. I didn’t know I had a zombie threshold until I was about halfway through this book, but apparently I do and this book reached it.
All the things I liked about Sandman Slim are still around in Kill the Dead. James Stark, Kadrey’s punk wizard, is still punk: powerful, angry, pragmatic. When the book opens, he is killing vampires for money, paid by the Golden Vigil, a truly frightening partnership between angelic warriors and Homeland Security. Yes, that’s right, an operation that can smite you with God’s wrath, suspend habeas corpus and strangle you in bureaucratic red tape all at the same time. They are not the scariest thing walking LA’s mean streets, either. Stark is still worried about his old adversary Mason, and he is baffled by the cryptic last words of the teen cheerleader vampire he just ended.
Stark is distracted from the vampire girl’s riddle — or the strange stories of people going missing — by a visit from his old boss, Lucifer. Stark used to be an arena fighter in Hell. A human could not have survived eleven years in Hell, but Stark is only half human. His father was an angel… if, perhaps, a fallen one.
Lucifer says he has come to LA to get a movie made. It’s a biopic, his side of the story. Stark is wisely skeptical of this cover story but agrees to provide bodyguard services. Soon he is rubbing elbows with the magical aristocracy, movie moguls and ambitious actresses, and protecting Lucifer from various attempted hits.
Stark discovers that someone has a plan to release an army of zombies that has been imprisoned underneath the city for centuries, and it seems that he is the only one who can stop it. He also needs to figure out who is after Lucifer. Lucifer may be the CEO of Hell, but he is the target of a hostile takeover, and Mason, who was exiled to Hell, has allied himself with the rebels.
One of the interesting thing about Stark is that he is a hardened, angry angel-punk, and he’s also strangely vulnerable and, at times, well… almost sweet. He tricked out his closet and built a skateboard conveyance for Kasabian, his bizarre disembodied-head sidekick (who also informs on him to Lucifer). He still pines for his dead love, Alice. When the zombie attack starts, he goes out of his way to warn a counter girl at his favorite doughnut shop to go home and lock her doors. These are not inconsistencies in his character; these are the flashes of humanity that keep me reading. At times in this book, Stark’s innocence and vulnerability veer dangerously close to whininess, especially when he is talking to his friend Kinski, but then there’s a cute scene in the back of a limo when he chats — yes, chats — with Lucifer about the magical books he’s been reading lately.
The zombie plot goes on too long without that much of a payoff. During an early zombie attack, Stark is infected. If he were human, he would turn into a zombie. Because he is half-angel, his human self “dies,” but we see no change in his behavior or attitude. He seems to be irritated with humans, but Stark is always irritated with someone, so this does not make a dramatic enough difference. Along the way, while he is deciding how to combat the zombies, there seems to be a lot of talking. I was still engaged but it was hard not to skim. I was much more interested in the Lucifer plot, and the scheme of the murderous angels who are involved with the Golden Vigil.
Despite some disappointments here, Kadrey keeps delivering a quirky brand of weirdness, and Stark manages to make me care about him, so I keep reading. I will read Aloha from Hell, the third book, just to find out what happens next.