cover image City of Dreadful Night: A Tale of Horror and the Macabre in India

City of Dreadful Night: A Tale of Horror and the Macabre in India

Lee Siegel. University of Chicago Press, $59 (264pp) ISBN 978-0-226-75688-2

Ancient Sanskrit tales of horror meet Bram Stoker's Dracula by way of an elderly storyteller in postcolonial India: Siegel, a professor of religion at the University of Hawaii, has assembled this bizarre but brilliant novel from sources spanning the corners of anthropology, history and oral storytelling traditions into a garish, fanciful kaleidoscope. Divided into seven sections headed by quotes from Sigmund Freud, Stephen King and 11th-century Indian religious texts, the narrative falls into three basic layers. The first is Siegel's straightforward account of his 1991 trip to India to research a book on ``horror and the macabre in India,'' where he learns of Brahm Kathuwala, a renowned vagrant storyteller. At the novel's core is Brahm's own story, fluctuating from the present to flashbacks that reveal his surrogate English mother, Mary Sheridan Thomson, a leader of her Gothic Literary Club who taught English to Brahm by reading him Dracula; and his marriage to Mena, a woman raised among the ever-burning funeral pyres which her father attended. Finally, to villagers, Brahm tells tales drawn from ``the river of stories'' that are often as gruesome as they are ancient. The narrative's endless interlocking stories-within-stories make use of elements as diverse as Hollywood horror films, a trunk full of Bram Stoker's research on vampires and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a ``human bomb.'' In Siegel's explorations of why horror fascinates, Brahm's belief that ``ideas tear people apart; stories bring people together,'' proves correct--especially when the story is as inventive, entertaining and over-the-top as this one. (Oct.)