(Before we begin, a moment of shameless self-promotion: For a limited time, the ebook of my novella quartet, Through A Mirror, Darkly, is free on Amazon. That’s a price you can’t beat! Grab it while you can.)
I have friend and colleague Bob Ford to thank for introducing me to Robert McCammon’s work. I’m not sure exactly when I stumbled across his blog entry about Boy’s Life, but it must’ve been late summer or early fall 2010, because I read Boy’s Life for the first time not long after. And, I can say—without an ounce of hyperbole—that novel impacted me more than any novel I’ve ever read. It changed me, fundamentally, as a writer. I made me realize the limitless possibilities of speculative fiction.
Is Boy’s Life a horror novel? Yes. It offers its fair share of horror, both supernatural and human. Is it fantasy? For certain, as boys “sprout wings” and fly free on the first day of summer vacation; as a primordial lizard prowls the riverbeds of Zephyr; and as a powerful woman hexes local gangsters and turns their arrogant bravado into jelly. Is it a ghost story? Little Stevie Cauley’s spirit says yes, as he and his ghostly hot rod Midnight Mona roars on the outskirts of town. Is it a murder mystery? For certain, as a violent death introduces Cory Mackenson and his father Tom to the horrible reality that someone in their beloved town is not whom they appear to be.
Boy’s Life is all of the above, and more. It’s a stirring epistle about how love destroys the violence and hate of racism. It’s about tearing down the divisions which separate us. It’s a sobering look at the price of “progress” during a time of immense change. It’s also a reminiscence of a boy discovering the magic of storytelling, and the sobering tale of a man who has lost that magic forever. And, as the title says: it’s about a “boy’s life.” A wonderful coming-of-age story that insists childhood has a special kind of magic all its own.
I could write an entire column about Boy’s Life. But as it turns out, it was only my introduction to Robert McCammon’s work. As beautiful, haunting and life-changing (yes, I mean that, completely), as Boy’s Life is, there’s so much more to his body of work than just one novel.
I’ve read in several places that Robert McCammon (similar to Dean Koontz) initially preferred to keep his early horror novels—Baal, Bethany’s Sin, Night Boat and They Thirst—out of print because he felt they didn’t represent his best work. And, to be fair, Baal, while an entertaining tale, is very much a “standard” horror novel about the Antichrist come to usher in the end of the world.
Bethany’s Sin, Night Boat and They Thirst, however, are wonderful horror novels—especially They Thirst, which I’ve come to think of as Salem’s Lot in LA. I don’t mean that it copies King’s seminal vampire novel in any way, but it derives its strength from the same source as Salem’s Lot—its characters. It’s a novel about the people living in LA, about their lives…and it’s also about vampires. The stories of the people is what gives the novel its power. I don’t like vampire novels, yet I loved They Thirst.
That sentiment is something I keep experiencing as I enjoy McCammon’s work. I generally don’t like werewolf novels, but The Wolf’s Hour is amazing. It’s not just a werewolf novel, it’s an epic tale of World War II espionage. I’m not really a fan of historical fiction, yet his historical fiction series, chronicling the exploits of colonial adventurer Matthew Corbett, is enthralling. It’s not just historical fiction, it’s a little bit like a colonial-era version of Repairman Jack. Also, Speaks the Nightbird isn’t just a historical mystery. It’s a scathing look at religious intolerance and the nature of true faith.
Mine isn’t just a violent, fast-paced thriller, it’s a deeply thoughtful and insightful examination of an entire generation of people who struggled in transitioning from the radical sixties to the materialistic eighties and nineties. Bethany’s Sin is a great take on mythological horror, but it’s also about masculinity and femininity, and about a husband and father trying to find his place. And Night Boat? I mean, a submarine full of undead Nazis? That’s just great fun, right there. Stinger was a highly entertaining novel which also offered one of the best and most well-hidden plots twists I’ve ever encountered. As much as I love The Tommyknockers, Stinger accomplishes successfully what The Tommyknockers tried to do. It’s also about a community putting it’s differences aside to work together.
Then there is Swan Song. For whatever reason, I held off on reading this post-apocalyptic epic for many years. However, when I finally got to it recently…its power and stunning beauty took my breath away. In some ways, I think, it stands as a perfect example of what sets McCammon’s work apart from others: he believes in the beauty of the human spirit, and that it will ultimately triumph over evil. He also believes there is a powerful force of good at work in the world.
This is a thread which keeps turning up in McCammon’s work: that spiritual beauty exists in the world; a beauty which has the potential to lift humans above the trappings of their existence. Even in a novel as viciously-paced as Mine, an insistence on the power of this spiritual beauty—even in the face of monstrousness—beats at the center. In the hands of other writers, such insistence could very easily be ham-fisted and forced.
Never in McCammon’s, however. His characters are always finely drawn and detailed, and the verisimilitude he crafts into them lends credibility to the spiritual beauty which drives his work. He writes a colonial-era magisterial clerk just as convincingly as he writes a young black man who works as a redcap for the Union Railroad Station in the 1930s, or members of a rock band trying to find its break after so long, as in The Five.
Of course, The Five isn’t just a novel about a rock band trying to get noticed in an age of free streaming media allowing anyone with a video camera to become a “rock star,” it’s also about the classic battle between good and evil. In fact, “isn’t just a novel about” is another great way to characterize McCammon’s work. All of his work features layers and texture which raises it above the “standard.”
I could go on, giving drive-by reviews of all his novels. Such as Gone South, which, on the surface, is about a desperate man running for his life after accidentally killing someone in a fit of rage, with two bounty hunters in pursuit (one of them with the unformed arm and head of his conjoined twin in his belly—they communicate with each other psychically, and the other an Elvis Presley impersonator). But it’s also about a spiritual journey of discovery.
In Usher’s Passing, McCammon takes Poe’s famous tainted family line and spins a gorgeously epic, Gothic tale. But it’s not just a pastiche of Poe; it’s a story of fighting for freedom from family obligation. Mystery Walk isn’t just a coming-of-age story, it’s about the dangers of “big business” religion, of the never-ending battle between good and evil, about racism and prejudice, about religious intolerance…and how hard it is for someone raised with those beliefs to let them go.
There’s also McCammon’s only short-story collection, Blue World. I absolutely love these stories. Featuring the powerful coming-of-age tale, “The Red House,” and “Yella Chile’s Cage,” a poignant tale which serves up storytelling as a metaphor for hope. Or the horrific “Yellowjacket Summer,” the wonderfully pulpy “Makeup,” or the post-apocalyptic “Something Passed By.”
My favorite three stories in this collection represent the best of McCammon: “The Night of the Green Falcon,” when an aging silent-film gets one last chance to be a hero; “Nightcrawlers,” about Vietnam ghosts that won’t die; and “Blue World,” a story only McCammon could tell, about how a priest finds his faith again, with the help of a porn star desperate for something better.
Stephen King once said that fiction is the “truth inside the lie.” Robert McCammon’s work shows us the beauty inside the darkness, a beauty that pushes that darkness back and makes this life bearable. That beauty and spirituality lift his horror and speculative fiction above the norm, sounding a clarion call for all of us to aspire to our own beauty.
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Need, was released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.