Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978)

4 stars for Harry Angel (Or Whomever he is)!4 stars for Harry Angel (Or Whomever he is)!4 stars for Harry Angel (Or Whomever he is)!4 stars for Harry Angel (Or Whomever he is)!

An incredibly creepy and detailed horror-mystery!
The Basis for the Alan Parker film Angel Heart starring Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, and a very naked Lisa Bonet

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J.C. Maçek III... 

J.C. Maçek III
The World's Greatest Critic!

The year was 1987, I was obsessed with Lisa Bonet. Probably everyone else close to my age was too. That year at the age of 13 I discovered that Lisa Bonet was going to doff her clothes and get naked in a movie called Angel Heart! I was so excited I could barely concentrate. I remember making up some educational excuse for having to see the film (having nothing to do with my pants exploding), but my mother refused having heard some horrifying things about the film. At the age of 28 I elected to catch up on my Lisa Bonet Nudie Movie, but in my investigation into this I became enthralled by some mentions of the source material, William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel! At the time of this writing I am still an Angel Heart Virgin, but Falling Angel has taken me in so many ways that I think... never mind!

After having read Falling Angel I can guarantee two things: 1) It's a great, strikingly original Tragic Novel perfectly balancing mystery, suspense, horror and action and 2) Mother was wise not to allow a thirteen year old to watch a film based on such a book.

The mystery begins right there on the first page, as private investigator Harry Angel contracts with an enigmatic new client named Louis Cyphre. Cyphre hires Angel to track the whereabouts of a legendary Glen Miller-like piano player named Johnny Favorite last seen in a mental ward 15 years prior to the novel's late 1950's setting. The Horror begins almost immediately after Angel takes the case.

What follows is a tight and tense, fast read that follows Angel's first-person account through the seedy underbelly of New York's '50's Jazz world, and the realm of Voodoo and Obeah, into the sideshow freakiness of old amusement parks and magic shows, into the erotic heat of passion and love, and throughout it all into the murky depths of satanism. All the while Hjortsberg keeps you fascinated in the plot with Harry's first person account of what he sees and feels. It's a strange combination of Film-Noir narration and hearing a story told by your best friend in a bar somewhere.

There is almost no time that one doesn't like Harry Angel no matter what he has going on. A great reason for this is Hjortsberg's talent as a first person writer. The fact that he can tell such an amazing story and keep so many of the pieces of the puzzle hidden in plain sight proves that he's very good, but it's his ability to write Harry in a voice that is both descriptive and friendly that makes a reader feel as if they too are part of the story. Hjortsberg introduces you to Harry and lets you get to know him very well before revealing to you the extent to which Harry doesn't know even himself.

Hjortsberg isn't simply writing himself either, as each of Angel's supporting characters has a rhythm and manner all their own. It's interesting to see how Harry Angel sifts through his clues and knows when someone is lying, but it's fascinating when one of the characters actually manages to pull the wool over Harry's eyes. The myriad characters that both help and hinder Harry are too numerous to list, however there are some amazing standouts. Among the most interesting characters is Epiphany Proudfoot, a mulatto shop owner and priestess who is linked to the Johnny Favorite case more than she can ever escape. The novel was written in 1978, but Hjortsberg's detailed and infectious description of Epiphany paints an exact picture of Lisa Bonet. It's amazing that she grew into the perfect actress for the role. Louis Cyphre himself is a conundrum all his own. There is little about him that is directly revealed, but by the shocking finale everything Hjortsberg shows us falls into place like a framed puzzle. So much is hinted at by this behind the scenes character that remains confusing until the end. Even if you do recognize the mnemonic device that is his name, trust me, he's full of surprises. Just when you're sure that you've figured him out something weirder transpires that puts you back at square one. The same is true for Margaret Krusemark who is an astrologer with a past featuring more divergent paths than a spider-web.

This is a very horrific novel, and if you are one to get queasy with detailed accounts of dismemberment and sacrificial rituals this is not for you. The slaughtered human body as an art-medium is a repeated thematic motif in this novel and Hjortsberg's details can be as nauseating to the reader as they are to Harry as his voice relays them to you.

As previously hinted, this is a novel with a decidedly surprising ending. It's almost a cliché to suggest that no one is quite what they seem, but when the innocent are suspect and the evil flip sides like blackened coins the reader doesn't know which way to turn for stability. The plot can be as intentionally confusing as the murky depths of Harry's quest will allow. Take my word for it, when the end comes just about everything is sorted out and you'll feel as refreshed as you did at the end of The Sixth Sense (though not a fraction of as comfortable).

This is just about the perfect novel for Mystery and Horror fans, but there are a couple of downsides. For example there is one point that I could not quite rationalize even after the shocks and realizations at the end. A plot turning point in the search for Favorite surrounds one character effectively replacing another in every way. The issue I have is that the people involved in that ritual seem so ignorant of who the person was and who the person became that it's confusing even after all is said and done. There are a few inconsistent moments in the depictions of Voodoo rituals and satanic masses that only a real geek (or an actual voudoun or satanist) would get. Hjortsberg certainly seems to have researched the whole thing well, but also takes some liberties. I won't include any spoilers here, but in short, you feel a lot more like saying "Wow" than "Yippee" throughout most of this fascinating but dark novel.

Four Stars out of Five for William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel. This is one scary, erotic, tragic and detailed masterpiece from the Author of Legend (yep, that Ridley Scott movie)! The fact that this novel has so many ingredients ranging from Horror to romance to erotica to mystery to drama to action shows what a credit to the writing community Hjortsbeg is because he actually balances all these elements into a tight and engrossing culmination that never seems to become top-heavy or overloaded. It's going to be difficult reviewing Angel Heart after loving the source material so much but Lisa Bonet nude might help me through it much like Alyssa Milano saved Embrace of the Vampire and Leah Thompson made All the right Moves bearable. Regardless, this is not the novel you're expecting and it's not a novel you're likely to forget. Read it while the sun's up because this one is sure to tug at your nightmare sensors!

If you're still you and you're not having some Obeah Voodoo Crisis...
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Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg reviewed by J.C. Maçek III who is solely responsible for his views and adoration for The Serpent and the Rainbow!
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