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Review by Wayne C. Rogers
What I’m going to do here is write a review of the novel, Falling Angel, by William Hjortsberg, and then do a review of the film adaptation of the book, Angel Heart, which was written for the screen and directed by Alan Parker, and starred Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet. I originally read the novel in paperback around 1979, but I’ve seen the movie at least a dozen times since it came out in 1987. I think both of them are excellent and deserve an individual review.
In 1979, horror fiction was starting to establish itself as a genre where writers could actually make a living. Stephen King had already published Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Night Shift, and The Stand came out that year and blew all of his fans away. Peter Straub’s Ghost Story came out, too. Robert McCammon had already had Baal published in 1978, and though there were no novels in 1979, he had two come out in 1980. Charles L. Grant and Ramsey Campbell were also starting to come upon the scene with Dean Koontz and Phantoms just around the corner. It was a great time to be a reader and to be a writer of horror fiction.
In 1978, Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg was published in hardcover, but it didn’t make a really big splash until the following year when the paperback edition came out. This novel quickly cemented Mr. Hjortsberg’s fame as a horror writer, giving him a solid fan base. I, and other fans, eagerly awaited a second horror novel by him, but it didn’t come out. As it turned out, Falling Angels was Mr. Hjortsberg’s one shot at the big time in the publishing world. Though he wrote a few other novels, none of them made a lasting impression like Falling Angel. This was an original. No one had ever written anything like it before. When the movie was eventually made in late eighties, it also proved to be a winner with both Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro at the helm. As the author is quick to point out, Falling Angel has been in print in one format or another for the last thirty years, which is quite an amazing accomplishment, considering that this was his only bestseller. Having read the novel first in 1979 and then again a few weeks ago, I can say it definitely stands the test of time. Even knowing what was going to happen, especially after seeing the film so many times, I still found myself enjoying the book and rushing to get to the end to see how it played out. Make no mistake, Falling Angel is still a winner thirty-three years later!
While the movie takes place in both New York City (plus the town of Poughkeepsie in upper state New York) and New Orleans during 1955, the book keeps to basically one location – New York City during the year of 1959. A down and out private investigator, Harry Angel, is hired by a rather strange elegantly dressed gentleman, Louis Cyphre, through the law firm of attorney Herman Winesap. It seems that Mr. Cyphre needs a missing crooner found, Johnny Favorite, who disappeared during World War II after been drafted during his swift rise to success, wounded, and then returned to the states in a somewhat vegetative state of mind. Johnny sang with the Spider Simpson band and was the first real singer to hit the big time before Sinatra came along. Cyphre and Favorite also had a contract with each other, and Cyphre wants to make sure it’s honored.
Somehow, Cyphre discovered that Favorite had been placed in the Emma Dodd Harvest Memorial Clinic in Poughkeepsie as a patient upon returning home. He supposedly is still there. When Cyphre attempted to see Favorite, the staff said no. Now, Cyphre wants Harry Angel to find out what’s going on and to see if Favorite is really a patient.
After some snooping around that leads to the death of Favorite’s previous doctor, Angel finds out that the crooner was a patient there in the early forties, but was released into the care of a man named Edward Kelly right at the end of World War II. Angel now has to track down all of Favorite’s old friends to see if he ever made contact with them. This eventually leads Harry Angel into the world of Black Magic and Voodoo. It seems that Favorite was a practitioner of the dark arts and supposedly conjured up the devil during a Black Mass. Harry Angel finds out about Johnny’s old girlfriend, Margaret Krusemark, who’s the daughter of a wealthy shipping tycoon and a practitioner of the dark arts, too. Johnny Favorite also had another girlfriend on the side, who was heavily into Voodoo and owned an herbal store. The thing that really scares Angel is the fact that bodies start turning up wherever his investigation leads him. It looks to him as if he’s being set up to take a fall for something he didn’t do.
Before the novel is over, however, that will turn out to be the least of his worries as Angle discovers the truth about Johnny Favorite and where he is.
One thing that Falling Angel does, besides entertain you, is to give you a close look at New York City in 1959. The author provides the reader with a detailed tour of the town that adds authenticity to the plot. You feel as though you’re actually there as Harry Angel searches the city for information about his missing crooner. The novel was also written with precision and clarity that offers a vivid picture of the cultural times and the individual characters. Even without the actors from the movie, you find yourself able to picture each character as if they’re real people. This enables the reader to get close to some of the fictional characters and to feel some measure of surprise as more and more of the truth slowly comes out. I won’t say the novel is scary, but it’s certainly creepy.
I do have one question concerning the story. In it, the author has the character of Louis Cyphre doing magic shows in various places throughout the city. I never quite understood the reasoning for that. Alan Parker left that part out of the movie, which was probably a good idea. The film seemed to work quite well without it. Besides, I can’t really see Robert De Niro doing magic shows. He already established his presence quite well without the necessity of that.
If you haven’t read this novel or seen the film, then you owe it to yourself to do so. You’re in for a very special treat. You won’t be disappointed in how good the book turns out to be, even after thirty-three years. If you’re like me, however, you’ll wonder why the author didn’t return with an even bigger and better second novel to blow his new fans away. A Highly recommended classic in the field of horror.
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