Falling AngelBy William Hjortsberg (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; 1978)

One of the great modern horror novels, this is the unquestioned masterpiece of the eccentric William Hjortsberg, who’s dabbled in science fiction (GREY MATTERS), ribald comedy (TORO! TORO! TORO!) and historical speculation (NEVERMORE). FALLING ANGEL, Hjortsberg’s entry into the horror arena, was the basis of Alan Parker’s 1987 film ANGEL HEART, but deserves to be taken on its own terms. Set in NYC during the late 1950s, the novel was quite unique in its day, and can be credited with kicking off the horror-noir trope that informed subsequent novels like EDDY DECO’S LAST CAPER, THE HARVEST BRIDE, CELESTIAL DOGS and Hjortsberg’s own MANANA.

In keeping with the private eye motif the author is so clearly aping, it starts out with hard-boiled private dick Harry Angel being commissioned by a weird dude named Louis Cyphere, who wants Angel to hunt down a singer named Johnny Favorite. The search takes Harry into a dark world of big city voodoo (ANGEL HEART erred, I feel, in transposing the action to the American South, and so missed the novel’s arrestingly surreal depiction of primitive magic in the concrete jungle) where he meets an alluring woman, Epiphany Proudfoot, with whom he becomes romantically involved.

Murder is a constant in Angel’s odyssey. Everybody he approaches seems to meet some hideously violent end: a guy is asphyxiated with his own severed penis, a woman gets her heart ripped out, and another is killed in an even more horrendous manner that I’ll refrain from detailing here. More nastiness is in store in the final pages, in which all becomes clear.

The novel is brilliant in the way it mimics the tried-and-true “hardboiled” style of Raymond Chandler and others, yet gradually introduces the creepy crawly business until by the end it’s saturated the narrative, leaving us with a full-bodied horror story. True, the character names–Lou Cyphere and Epiphany in particular–are a bit overly revealing, and the “twist” ending, in which Angel and Cyphere reveal their true identities, isn’t exactly difficult to foresee (note the fact that Cyphere’s address is 666), but it’s a fascinating and compelling odyssey nonetheless.