I wouldn’t yet rank Dan Simmons among my ten favorite authors, but I’ve been very impressed with the few books that I’ve read by him so far and am eager to read more. But … it depends. If that sounds wishy-washy, let me explain. The problem with Simmons, if you even can call it a problem, is that he’s written over two dozen books, crossing multiple genres, but most falling into the Fantasy and Horror realm, categories which are not remotely of interest to me.
But among the many novels that Simmons has written are some fabulous crime and historical fiction titles that are both well researched and full of intriguing characters. I just finished one of his recent novels, Black Hills, which utilizes a member of the Sioux tribe as the main character. The novel is a sprawling 600-page adventure that spans a wide range of American history, from the massacre at Little Big Horn in 1876 to the carving of Mount Rushmore in the 1930s. Along the way we are treated to visits to the Chicago World’s War in 1893, meetings with the legendary Crazy Horse, a pilgrimage to Libbie Custer’s apartment in New York City in 1933 (with a side trip to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge), and other interesting diversions. The main character is a man named Paha Sapa, which means “Black Hills” in his native Lakota language. The most notable, if not bizarre, aspect of the Paha Sapa character is the fact that after touching the body of the dying General George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn when he was only eleven years old, Paha Sapa is haunted — or rather possessed — by the “ghost voice” of Custer for the next six decades. That all may sound weird, but it works, thanks to the masterful writing and storytelling ability of Dan Simmons.
Looking at reviews online, I was surprised to see this novel getting mixed reviews, ranging from glowing to disappointed. I thought Black Hills was very compelling and well written, perhaps my favorite of the Dan Simmons novels that I’ve read thus far. Sure it jumps all over the place, and introduced a variety of characters at different points in time, but the novel eventually gels and the patient reader will no doubt find themselves riveted to the tale of Paha Sapa and other characters, notably General Custer and his wife. Reading Black Hills also piqued my interest in subjects such as the treatment of Native Americans by the US government, the life of Libbie Custer, the history of the Mount Rushmore project, and how Americans are STILL fucking up their environment without regard for future generations.
Previous to Black Hills, I also read several other novels by Simmons. While I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of those books, I just can’t get excited at the prospect of tackling one of Simmons’ Horror or Fantasy novels. But then again, even in his works of historical fiction, you will find ghosts and other creepy, supernatural elements woven into the story. The Terror is the gripping account of an ill-fated Arctic exhibition, with cannibalism and hallucinations popping up periodically. Drood was another mesmerizing read, set in England in the 1860s, and incorporates both Charles Dickens and his fellow novelist Wilkie Collins as main characters in the ghostly plot. The Crook Factory took the reader to Cuba in 1942, where Ernest Hemingway is living at the time. Hemingway assists the FBI in investigating Nazi activity on the island, leading to all sorts of adventure. Darwin’s Blade was about an insurance claims investigator who uncovers a murder, and Hard Freeze was a more traditional crime fiction tale, featuring a hard-boiled private eye and ruthless gangsters. Other Simmons novels that I have yet to read have apparently used Mark Twain and John Keats as characters. I’m looking forward to reading more books by this fascinating author.