'Sandman Slim' Is Urban Fantasy With Brains, Guts And A Blackened Heart
Six years ago I picked up a book called Sandman Slim by an author, Richard Kadrey, whose name was only vaguely familiar to me. I bought it on a whim. I'm happy I did. Turns out Kadrey wrote Metrophage — a book I'd heard about but never actually got around to reading — back in the '80s, during the golden age of cyberpunk.
Unlike Metrophage, though, Sandman Slim wasn't cyberpunk. It was urban fantasy mixed with hard-boiled detective fiction. Granted, Kadrey wasn't the first to do this; Jim Butcher's massively popular Dresden Files series helped pave the way a few years earlier. But Sandman Slim instantly gripped me in a way no other urban fantasy had. It boasted all the requisites of an urban fantasy: Magic, demons, vampires and a half-human/half-angel protagonist. But it also had brains, guts and a deliciously blackened heart.
Across six novels, James Stark, aka Sandman Slim — a self-described "mangy nephilim" — has wormed his way into my flimsy excuse for a soul. He spent years in Hell, fighting demons in the Devil's own gladiator pits. He owns a video store called Max Overdrive that has recently begun selling magically procured versions of films that never came to be, like David Lynch's version of Return of the Jedi. He hangs out at the coolest bar in the world, Bamboo House of Dolls, a tiki-themed punk dive in his native LA that acts as the Mos Eisley Cantina for Kadrey's twisted vision of the supernatural underworld. Oh, and Stark has saved the world — make that the universe — without thanks or recognition.
It's not rare to find a tortured antihero in fantasy, urban or otherwise. But Stark is unique. His self-loathing approaches poetic ecstasy. I'm serious — Kadrey has a way with internal monologue that turns Stark's first-person narrative into a veritable symphony of misanthropy, in a good way. Stark's voice pops, sparks, snarls, jabs and jolts. Oh, and he's funny, too.
Beneath all those layers upon layers of braggadocio and nihilism lies the bleakest comedian in the world. Even when he's throat-punching angels or perched on the lip of a cosmic apocalypse, his quips, putdowns and observational zingers cut to the bone. And more often than not, those wisecracks exude an actual — if damaged — wisdom.
The seventh book in the Sandman Slim series, Killing Pretty, comes out next week, and it's a new page for Stark. Kadrey's cleared away the mythological overgrowth that had begun to crowd Sandman Slim after six books, and he's replaced it with a leaner (and somehow even meaner) modus operandi. From here on out, Stark will work as an actual supernatural private eye, taking on cases in the grimy, borderline dystopian streets of LA. The series has been downscaled, and it's better for it.
That's not to say Killing Pretty is a cakewalk. Stark still carries all kinds of baggage from his more god-sized adventures, and his circle of lovers, confidantes and frenemies has gotten more complicated. What makes the book sing (in the way that, say, Johnny Rotten sang) is Kadrey's endlessly inventive way with the grimy magic of his character, premise and setting. "Los Angeles is a busted jukebox in a forgotten bar at the ass end of the high desert," Stark soliloquizes in Killing Pretty. No matter what he's able to overcome, he's still neck-deep in trouble — the same way that Kadrey is still neck-deep in pulp, the tradition he so gleefully sets on fire.
Every time a new Sandman Slim book comes out, I feel a little apprehension. Is this the installment where Kadrey is finally going to let me down? Has he run out of ways to make Stark bash his head against reality, not to mention unreality? As it turns out, the acerbic angst and deadpan laughs are an endlessly renewable energy source.
Six years after stumbling into Sandman Slim's seedy, seamy world, I'm still hungry to go back every time. To get lost in it. I have yet to be disappointed. But if this is escapism, it's the most masochistic kind I can imagine. Stark, I think, would appreciate that.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor, and author of the novel Taft 2012.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.