It’s been a while since author Patrick Rogers reached out to me to review his first book, The Green Unknown. He said he’d do so again for the next book, and I just assumed that whenever that happened, it’d be something along the similar lines. And this one is… except it’s not. Let me clarify that.
Rogers’ The Green Unknown is a travelogue. The author went off into the wilds of India in search of living root bridges and was confronted with a people and a place very different than most Americans would be accustomed to experiencing. This new book, City of the Shrieking Tomb, utilizes that firsthand experience in the form of a novel, in this case, a supernatural horror story. Intrigued? Read on.
The city of Humayunpur, long ago the capital of a powerful dynasty of Central Asian conquerors, lies all but forgotten in a dusty, overlooked, corner of South Central India. Within its crumbling medieval walls, vast tombs and ruined palaces tower above a dense warren of small houses and narrow streets. Once a city of tremendous wealth and influence, Humayunpur has faded into impoverished obscurity.
It’s a place with dark secrets, where the locals whisper stories of spirits, demons, and mad sorcerers.
Now, a travel photographer from abroad finds himself stranded in the lost city. All around him are the mute remains of its glorious, bloody, past. As he peels back, layer by layer, the mysteries of Humayunpur’s decline and fall, he discovers the ruins hide far more than just forgotten history. Everything that he thought he knew about the world is turned on its head.
He finds that something lives still in the ancient tombs of Humayunpur.
This is the second book by Patrick A Rogers, author of The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills
Longtime readers of this site know I love a good old fashioned ghost story. I’m a monster kid. I grew up on Universal and Hammer. I prefer the classics to slashers. The same holds true of the great horror literature. Give me creepy over gory any day.
The story is a slow burn, told more or less in the style of early Western pulp horror, which is to say it’s more fun to read than it is literary. That also happens to make it a quick read once the narrative takes off. It seems contradictory, I know, but it does take off as the layers start getting peeled back. Before the narration begins in earnest, the book opens with a prologue that feels like something out of a professional journal, giving a little history of the city. It seems out of place and out of context, but then, we don’t know what to expect at the beginning, do we? What’s more important is that this prologue is in stark contrast to how much information our lead character, Rick, won’t get easily from the tight-lipped locals. He’s also skeptical to a fault, dismissive of what’s right in front of his face, so that factors in too. Think Indiana Jones, but with a camera, no international resources, and only a high school education. If ever a character needed a Sallah to help him, it’s this guy. As one character, Narcissus, tells him repeatedly, he’s really dense. It’s often easier in most novels for the reader to believe before the characters do. And we are reminded at turns that Rick is a guy who starts the story hot, exhausted, and miserable, and it doesn’t get any easier for him from there, so a little sympathy isn’t totally out of order.
The narrative opens the mystery in crumbs and tidbits, as old school mysteries tend to do. Patience rewards the reader, even if our protagonist has a harder time with a lack of forthcoming details. To counterpoint Rick, we have Awaz, a local doctor with a direct connection to the mystery, a protective attitude that makes him evasive at nearly every turn early on, and some serious patience. He strikes me as an interesting man to know. I’m forced to wonder if he’s modeled on a real person or persons.
Because piecing the puzzle together is the central thrust of the story, I don’t want to give anything away on that front. Instead, I’m going to dance around it the way Awaz does and direct your attention elsewhere. As I stated up top, Rogers has firsthand experience in the challenges of travel and encounters with Indian culture. That comes across here so well right from the first page in a way that feels like both a compliment and a counterpoint to his first book. To my mind, it’s respectful, though it certainly doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The world building is excellent as the narrative unfolds, with details and situations that wouldn’t even cross my mind otherwise. I would be very curious to know what Indian readers would make of this American interpretation of their culture.
As with most horror pulps, and as befitting the setting and tone of this one, the story is a little rough around the edges. Mileage will, of course, vary on how that style meshes with readers. I’m more accustomed to older writing styles, so I take such things into account. The culture shock pushed me in headfirst, and once I had an idea of how the tone of the novel was going to play out, I was able to better enjoy it for what it was offering. I’ve read very few horror novels that double as travelogues, and my thinking for the first third or so of the book is that I can’t claim to have read one quite like this before. It’s a combination that works. I like a little “something different” every so often. The thing is, the further in you go, the less travelogue it becomes, and more it unfolds as a traditional pulp horror story with exotic overtones. Demons are still demons pretty much everywhere you go in the world. It’s a question of whether or not an author knows how to utilize the ideas. There’s a balance that comes from understanding nuances of such things. Rogers most definitely pulled it off. What most sells this story for me is the depth of the backstory and its cosmology. The more the layers are peeled back, the better it gets. Fact is, as much as the story works as it’s written, the backstory itself, told from another perspective and properly fleshed out, would make quite the historical fantasy novel.
This book was gifted to me by the author (thanks, Patrick!) in exchange for an honest review. I think neither author nor readers of this site are of the delusion that’d I do otherwise.
And as always, when doing reviews at the request of an author, I offer links to help out. You can find City of the Shrieking Tomb at Amazon and Goodreads. You can find Patrick Rogers at his website: https://patrickrogersauthor.wordpress.com/.