Rob’s Life: a Profile of Robert McCammon

By Matt Williams

'My key word is hope; I think there's hope in any situation.'

(Robert McCammon in Fear, Nov/Dec 1988, p.27)

The Kings, the Herberts, the Barkers, the Straubs. It's only been comparatively recently that you could add the surname McCammon to such a formidable lineup of names popularly associated with the modern horror genre. After 17 years, 13 books and a lot of adverse opinion regarding his novels, Robert R. McCammon has at last struck gold, not only in terms of critical success (there have been awards: Boy's Life, for instance, won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1992) but also with regard to the richness of his writing. For the novels and short stories of this talented American author are nowadays acclaimed as amongst the best in the field, indeed any field you care to mention.

Robert McCammon began his career as a journalist. In 1978, at the age of 26, he sold his novel Baal at the first attempt; these were followed by a succession of bestselling horror novels including Bethany’s Sin (1979), The Night Boat (1980), They Thirst (1981), Mystery Walk (1983) and Swan Song (1987). To date his novels have yet to be filmed although two of his short stories (‘Makeup’ and ‘Nightcrawlers’) have been adapted for U.S. television. In 1984, McCammon came up with the idea of The Horror Writers Of America for which he has acted as contributing editor for the Association’s vampire anthology Under The Fang. He currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

Perhaps what first brought McCammon to the public’s attention was not the originality of his style or plots but instead the comparisons which were made to other name writers of the seventies, in the main one Stephen King. The parallel was undeniable. His first success Baal with its demonic-child-wreaks-havoc-on-mankind scenario was mirrored to a certain extent by King’s first effort Carrie, the story of a troubled teenage girl with telekinetic powers. Never mind that the former was a better novel, it soon became fashionable to equate McCammon’s books with his revered rival and often with justification. They Thirst, for example, is the author’s foray into the much-trod fictional arena of the vampire novel. Though intrinsically different from King’s vampire opus Salem’s Lot, there were certainly plot similarities thankfully balanced out by McCammon’s very different characters and ideas. And then there’s Swan Song, post-apocalyptical and long; versus King’s The Stand, post-apocalyptical and very long.

There’s actually some mileage to be had in comparing McCammon to other authors: it sheds light (both favourable and equivocal) on the many varying aspects of his writing and at the same time gives us an overview of his career, presenting his work in a better-understood light. Another writer associated with the deep south is Joe R. Lansdale. Could you compare the two and get away with it? Both McCammon’s and Lansdale’s characters are warm but often enigmatic in the extreme; both mix old-fashioned morality tales with sometimes extremely brutal violence in a mixture that conversely works well. McCammon’s stories however tend to be spread across a very broad canvas whereas Lansdale usually restricts his tales to a more personal viewpoint. Or what about the fact that more recent McCammon novels have followed the trend set by Clive Barker, Peter Straub and Dean Koontz in that they have tended to move away from supernatural horror and have merely retained elements of the fantasy genre to supplement their more mainstream works. In McCammon’s case, examples of these would include Mine, Boy’s Life and Gone South.

Which brings us to the type of books that the author writes. Certainly the horror tag is applicable to a good many of them. Baal, Bethany’s Sin, The Night Boat, They Thirst, Mystery Walk, Usher’s Passing: all classifiable as ‘horror novels’. Others range into more diverse territory. The post-apocalyptic terror of Swan Song which follows the plight of several unrelated characters in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust; the out-and-out sci-fi of Stinger (assorted alien monsters let loose on a small town); the frank and at times spiritual account of a porn actress in the novella Blue World; Gone South with its bizarre assortment of characters including an awful Elvis impersonator called Pelvis Eisley, his partner, a freak with a mean streak and a woman with a disfiguring birthmark, all headed for the Louisiana swamplands. Into all of these books McCammon has thrust enough assorted ingredients to ensure readability at all times: despite not writing such conspicuously horror-based novels of late, all of his novels have utilised sex, violence, terror, humour and hope. Whether it is a book such as Usher’s Passing, an intriguing pseudo-historical updating of Poe’s legendary story The Fall Of The House Of Usher, which lends a depth (not to mention genuine scares) to the original, or the Bradbury-like nostalgia of a young boy’s tale of loss, redemption and innocence in Boy’s Life, Robert McCammon has demonstrated his competence several times over.

Arguably he hit high gear with the publication of Mystery Walk in 1983. This sensitive and often very eerie tale concerns a young boy and his extraordinary ‘gift’ to help the deceased ‘pass on’ following an often traumatic and sudden death. Following his path to manhood it sets him against many obstacles including a crackpot preacher determined to prove his powers are less than holy. It’s a beautifully paced novel, full of affecting moments and sensitive characterisation with enough ghostly chills to please any cynical horror fan. Following this with another masterly effort, Usher’s Passing, McCammon soon became a force to be reckoned with.

The Wolf’s Hour (1989) is the story of a British Secret Agent who is actually a werewolf and what’s more, a World War II hero to boot! As unlikely as it sounds, it was probably his best book to date taking an epic plot and weaving it in a way that was more focused than his previous epic, Swan Song.

1990 saw the publication of the psychological thriller Mine. It showed the author at the pinnacle of his ability. Mary Terrell is a former member of a 60s Liberation Army movement who years later, yearning for the ‘good old days’ of violent protests goes underground and eventually, quite mad. She decides to kidnap a baby from a hospital, and the rest of the novel examines the plight of the mother whose baby was stolen, her attempts to locate Mary and reclaim her offspring. Being a current and, as recent cases both in the UK and the U.S. have proved, pertinent issue, the book makes enthralling reading and you literally hold your breath during the scenes involving the extremely unpredictable Mary wondering what on earth she’s going to do next.

It’s been said before that one of the most important things about McCammon’s novels is the element of hope that infiltrates his fictional situations time and time again. True enough there is almost always a positive ending to his books but as in the best horror/fantasy novels, the characters really go through the mix before arriving, shop-soiled but basically intact at the conclusions to their personal journeys. And it is these characters that more than anything else determine the pedigree of a Robert McCammon novel.

McCammon’s people are often a strange assortment: the Elvis impersonator in Gone South; the bag lady-turned-heroine in Swan Song; the sewer-dweller with a heart in They Thirst. All endear themselves to our hearts because we all love an outcast. His players are some of the most rounded and fascinating in horror fiction. Although his narrative moves at a fast pace, he spends a lot of time showing us his major (and minor) characters, characters who are sometimes larger than life but always interesting enough to engage our attention through even his longest novels.

It is probably true that the author has used old plots and stereotypes with great frequency down the years, but it is the interpretation he gives his subject matter that counts. So McCammon has done vampires, he’s done werewolves, resurrected zombies, the apocalypse, people with paranormal gifts: yet he’s also executed each idea with a certain individuality and an undeniably intelligent finesse. Remove the chills from his novels and you’re still left with fine writing and quick-witted observation about the big L, Life.

Combined with the above assets, Robert McCammon has always demonstrated an astute ear for dialogue. Like several of his contemporaries, he seems to be able to be able to tell you as much about his characters through what they say as through straightforward description.

Note the following naturalistic dialogue, taken from his short story, Yellachile’s Cage (Blue World, p.67):

‘Ive spent time in juve centres and workhomes and crap like that, but you say ‘Prison’ and your talking a different animal. You walk in a prison like the Brickyard and you be twenty-one years old and you better keep a tight ass and your head tucked down real low to the ground or somebody he gone knock it off cause thats his kick… Anyways, I didnt pay a feller no respect and I was in the hospital bout three hours after the Cap’n dropped me down the chute.’

Important too is the visual aspect inherent in his novels. In one magazine, McCammon comments that he writes his books as a film-maker constructs a film, taking into account sets, costumes, and actors. Bearing this in mind, one wonders why we haven’t seen the transition of print into celluloid with any of his longer works. (On the other hand, maybe that’s no bad thing considering what has happened to many of our best genre stars when their visions were debased and turned into some really dreadful movies.)

So what makes a powerful McCammon story? To answer this, let’s take a brief look at a short story and a novel both of which are good examples of why McCammon’s fiction has such universal appeal. Firstly, the short story, ‘The Deep End’ (Night Fears, 1989). It’s the story of Glenn whose son Neil ‘drowned’ in the local public swimming pool. However, the father is suspicious when he discovers that there have been similar deaths for at least the past five summers, and together with the evidence he found on his son’s neck (possibly bite wounds), he decides to investigate further in the hope of destroying the creature he suspects inhabits the pool, one which can change its shape and colour to suit its environment. What follows is typically McCammon in terms of style, content and characterisation. Almost Twilight Zone-ish in its story, we are made to feel the father’s anguish and self-doubt (Is the creature real? Is the grief driving him mad?) but also his hope, for revenge, for peace of mind. Typical also is the skilfully portrayed pathos and the simple but exciting storyline which sees a confrontation with an alien life-form and a climactic fight for life. Some of McCammon’s best stories feature heroism prominently – for example, ‘Night Calls The Green Falcon’, ‘Yellachile’s Cage’ and ‘Wolf’s Hour’ – and in ‘The Deep End’ we are once more confronted with a hero, whose deeds not only avenge his son’s death but also save a town from further tragedy.

Described by its creator as a ‘fictography’ – a mixture of fiction and biography – Boy’s Life(1991) is set in an Alabama town in 1964. It portrays a young boy and the adventures he has as a result of what he and his father witness one fateful morning. Here we have one of those nostalgic, often sentimental (though never melodramatic) epics which the likes of Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and Dan Simmons have tackled in the past and whose movie equivalents include Stand By Me, The Lady In White, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. In a letter included at the back of the U.S. edition of Mine, McCammon makes this comment:

‘Boy’s Life is not about lost innocence, because I believe we all maintain the pool of innocence and wonder inside us no matter how far we get away from our childhood.’

Whatever the author intended his book be about it’s certainly an uplifting experience in every way. Few modern authors possess the asset of such a capable imagination that allows them to depict a grown man’s reminiscences of his magical past in quite such a moving, funny and enlightening manner. By means of affecting nostalgia McCammon takes us with his character through episodic accounts of practical realism (the witnessing of a tragedy), sharply etched humour (the ‘stinging sermon’) and fantastic improbability (a huge beast that appears during a flood), introducing us along the way to some of the most memorable characters ever devised. Here are all the elements intact: pathos; tragedy; humour; optimism. There are reminiscences on the golden age of science fiction, creepy moments, sad reflections: all lovingly presented in what is probably McCammon’s best book to date.

Robert McCammon and his work have been labelled many things over the years, but more and more recently these have included such descriptions as ‘electric’, ‘blistering’ and ‘enthralling’. He has even been cast in the ‘splatterpunk’ mode by some critics, though this is a term obviously ill-suited to a writer of such diverse books. As American as apple pie and with all the best attributes one expects from a talented modern author, it will be fascinating to discover to what heights Robert McCammon has yet to aspire if indeed such a pinnacle has not already been reached.

The Books of Robert R. McCammon:

  • Baal (1978)
  • Bethany’s Sin (1979)
  • They Thirst (1981)
  • The Night Boat (1980)
  • Mystery Walk (1983)
  • Usher’s Passing (1984)
  • Swan Song (1987)
  • Stinger (1988)
  • The Wolf’s Hour (1989)
  • Mine (1990)
  • Boy’s Life (1991)
  • Gone South (1992)
  • Blue World (1989)

© Matt Williams. Taken from The Best of Prism UK (The BFS Newsletter), published for the World Fantasy Convention 1997, ed. David J Howe; reprinting material from Prism UK – Editor: Debbie Bennett, Commissioning Editor: David J. Howe.