Off My Shelf: Falling Angel by William Hjortsbertg

Photo by  Adrien Olichon  on  Unsplash

Aside from two fully employed adults, our home houses several thousand books, and since we don’t follow the “one in, one out,” philosophy, the books overfill the shelves and are stacked on flat surfaces around our home. The books with the best address, upright on shelves handmade by my father or my uncle, have been with me the longest. Some of the oldest have been through eight moves or more, from my adolescent home to the house where I live with my husband today.

This is why I have to answer “none of the above” when asked how I store my books: by author, title, genre, color, or some other system. Our books aren’t stored.

They arrive.

They exist.

Sometimes I get rid of them.

I don’t have any hard and fast rules about which ones go and which ones stay, or I suspect more of them would be gone. But gone is relative, as “gone” means trading off for MORE books and we have an obscene amount of trade credit at the largest used book store in Tulsa, so the problem perpetuates itself. Usually when I do an edition of “Off My Shelf,” I consider a book I haven’t read, but today I look at ragged paperback copy of Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg.

The book was the source material for Alan Parker’s 1987 movie, Angel Heart. The film stars a pre-plastic surgery Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet, whose turn as the seductive Voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot shattered her relatively innocent, if somewhat funky, image as one of the Huxtable daughters on The Cosby Show. Using a weird combination of noir and Southern Gothic, the film chronicles a private eye whose pursuit of a missing person leads him into a spiral of bloody murders. The director tangled with the ratings board over whether it deserved an “X” or an “R” because of the violence, but he eventually cut the offending scenes for theatrical release, although they were restored in some versions of the VHS edition.

I saw the movie at a friend’s house soon after the video release and soon forgot it, and the fact it was based on a novel, for almost 30 years. I was reminded of it when Nancy Pearl mentioned it in Book Lust. Hjortsberg’s novel merits its own paragraph, whereas other classics of the horror genre, including The Turn of the Screw, Interview with a Vampire, and two Stephen King novels, are all lumped together. Pearl admits she “couldn’t sleep for days” after reading the book.

Reason enough to read it, so I found a cheap paperback copy in a bookstore and did so.

And now a decade and a half later it’s still on my shelf.

Is it a beautiful edition? No, it’s a simple mass market paperback, the pages yellowed from age, the spine creased and faded. The cover art is interesting, featuring an array of Art Deco skyscrapers on which a gun-toting angel with a shiny foil disc of a halo kneels. Both the figure and the skyscrapers lay diagonally on the front of the book, creating an energy to match the red of the background. The cover itself is chipped, the bottom corner marred where the colored layer has been peeled off, demolishing some of the skyscrapers.

Inside the book is an odd combination of hard-boiled detective story and horror. The voice of the author is Chandler-esque, and even as Harry’s search for the missing crooner Johnny Favorite mount becomes more and more terrifying, the clinical, clipped cadence of the prose is consistent. The pace of the story quickens from the lazy, dreamy slack time of a detective waiting for a job to a gumshoe running from one clue to another to his own bad end.

The characters are “types”, and some of Hjortsberg’s choices are too obvious. It’s not too hard to figure out who Louis Cyphre really is, for example, even before Harry Angel does. I didn’t feel much empathy for the characters, but the events of the novel were compelling enough to keep me reading. The world of the novel is one completely unlike mine, and this is always a reason I might like a book.

“Why,” I sometimes ask myself, “did this author choose to write this book?” Occasionally, I think the writer had a message to communicate or a motive in sharing a tale. But in some cases, the answer is, “There was a story to tell.”

I think Falling Angel was a story to be told and Hjortsberg took the chance to tell it.

Should it stay or should it go? If I were in mood for a quick, heart-quickening read, I might pull this off the shelf again, so this volume gets to go back to its place on the living room shelf.