Dead Trees: Mystery Walk by Robert McCammon

banner reading Dead Trees by Mark Sieber

To say that Robert McCammon is one of the best living storytellers is to belabor the obvious. I’m sure there are a few unfortunates who dislike his work, but nearly everyone I’ve ever met has practically worshiped it.

The ’80s were a grand period for paperback originals, both in and out of the horror genre. McCammon’s Swan Song was the pinnacle of the so-called paperbacks from hell heyday. Published by Pocket in 1987, it was a pivotal moment in the horror field, and a watershed in McCammon’s career.

After Swan Song Robert McCammon delved into various offshoots of horror. While they all feature elements of the genre, few fall squarely in the category. The Wolf’s Hour, certainly. The Listener is a supernatural story, and it is one of his best, but it has the feel of the kind of metaphysical piece of fiction Richard Matheson might have written. He has written an epic and still ongoing historical saga, straight suspense, science fiction and fantasy.

The books before Swan Song sometimes gets the short shrift from readers, but at least one of them is an out-and-out classic. McCammon was writing pure, unadulterated horror in his early publishing years. The best of them, in my opinion, is 1983’s Mystery Walk.

McCammon was still walking in King’s footsteps a bit in those days. Nearly everyone who toiled in the genre was doing so. I see some of The Dead Zone in Mystery Walk. The novel almost feels like it could be a Stephen King story, but rather than the Maine sensibilities that permeate his world, a rich southern atmosphere inhabits McCammon’s writing.

Mystery Walk also deals with a youth with special powers.

The biggest and most notorious trope of the time was the dreaded “Indian Burial Ground.” Thankfully Mystery Walk does not feature one, but the plot does deal with Native American magic. A boy is born to a Choctaw mother and a white father. The mother’s family has passed down a gift of being able to determine when people are about to die, and they also have the ability to help their troubled spirits pass from this realm to the next. Unfortunately there is a dark force trying to claim the boy’s soul. Isn’t there always?

The prose in Mystery Walk is as rich as anything McCammon has ever written. His use of language and his often poetic descriptions are glorious. The characters are vivid and the scenes of horror are genuinely scary. The final confrontation is among the most gruesome and terrifying I’ve ever read. This is a dark novel, but like nearly everything else Robert McCammon has written, it is ultimately an uplifting experience. His work is as beautiful as it is frightening.

I had a great time revisiting Mystery Walk. I’m a much more careful and sometimes critical reader than I was when I originally read the book. It not only holds up, it is even more impressive. I consider it to be one of the finest novels of horror from the 1980s.

It seems as though McCammon got pure horror out of his system around this time. I’m fine with that. Especially when I consider the masterpieces he has created in the ensuing years. He is one of our very finest writers.

It’s been a privilege to watch McCammon grow as a writer since I read him way back when. For many he will never top Boy’s Life. It’s a special novel that won more hearts than any other I can think of. Even if Boy’s Life will always be the favorite of many readers, including myself,  I think he has gotten better at the craft. I look forward to everything that will come from his mind in the future. Until then, it was wonderful to visit the past and take the Mystery Walk with Robert R. McCammon.

Photo of Mark Sieber with a cat on his shoulder
Mark Sieber and friend

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at [email protected], and at

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