Haunting the Halls of Horror
Revisiting the Works of Robert McCammon
By: Tony Jones
When Ink Heist recently interviewed Chad Clark on his massive multi-year study Tracing the Trails: A Constant Reader’s Reflections on the Work of Stephen King we asked him whether he thought any other authors would be worthy of such a huge reading odyssey? Chad did mention both Anne Rice and Dean Koontz at possibilities. However, in the end there was only one other author and this is what Chad had to say:
“The one name I have thought of that might actually be an option that I could consider taking on (after a long break) would be Robert McCammon. I read and loved several of his books growing up and I think I would enjoy seeing the development of his style.”
Perhaps in the future, this project may come to fruition for Chad. As a small consolation prize, I have compiled reviews of my favorite eight Robert McCammon novels who has been one of my favorite authors for a number of years. I have read the majority of his books, with the exception of a few sequels, novellas and short fiction. Ultimately this article is unlikely to be telling long-term fans anything they do not already know and you’ve welcome to disagree with my choices. However, if you’re newish to the horror genre, or if you have never come across this amazing author before, this review has some truly terrific suggestions. Long-term fans may raise an eyebrow at a few high-profile omissions, but hey, it’s my list, so go and write your own!
1. They Thirst (1981)
Forget ‘Salem’s Lot’ McCammon’s vampire invasion wipes out Los Angeles in a week
The chunky trade paperback of They Thirst weighs in at a meaty 616 pages but even at that length there is rarely a dull moment. This stunning novel is top-heavy with expertly interwoven multiple characters, believably sketched story–lines, atmosphere and some great villains. It is in many ways a classical vampire story. Lesser writers would fail miserably with a story of this scope, slipping into repetitive vampire clichés, however, in the hands of McCammon the tired and familiar horror topic of vampires is tackled with great verve, originality and style. He plays it 100% straight, with his vampires obeying the classical rules: fear of sunlight, crucifixes, holy water and cast no reflections. Maybe you think you’ve read this sort of stuff before? You probably have, but not ramped up to this bombastic level.
Stephen King’s better-known Salem’s Lot also deals with a vampire infestation which effectively wipes out a sleepy small town, but in McCammon’s hands this is multiplied by 10,0000 as Los Angeles is brought to its knees by a vampire infestation so intense death is on a huge and unimaginable scale. Incredibly page one takes place on Friday October 25th and the novel concludes on Friday November 1st. One week sees the near total destruction of the city as the, regimented, almost army like swarm of dead, multiply and kill off a swathe of major characters along the way.
In the prologue we are taken back to mid Twentieth Century, Hungary, where a young boy witnesses his mother being murdered by his father, not realizing he is a vampire. Flip forward fifty years and this little boy is a now a Senior Los Angeles Detective investigating a serial killer nicknamed “The Roach” whose story eventually connects to the vampires. Detective Palatazin is a terrific character, troubled, ground down, tired, dedicated and willing to give up his life to fight the shadow which has always loomed over him. There is a superb array of support characters, ranging from teenage horror film fan Tommy to spunky, but trashy journalist Gayle. And lets nor forget the charismatic Solange, who names the book They Thirst in a creepy séance when speaking to the dead and her TV star boyfriend who is destined for a nasty end. McCammon has a real knack of expertly creating believable backstories for all his characters, and I was particularly sorry for some of these get the chop. This vampire novel sits on the very top table and in the near forty years since it has published has aged astonishing well. I still smile when a character runs to find a working phone box to prevent a vampire apocalypse!
2. The Border (2015)
Two alien races fight their intergalactic war above Earth in brutal science-fiction horror
The Border is a pulsating tale in which the world is almost completely destroyed by two feuding alien races that appear in our skies 48 hours apart of each other. Along with Stinger, it is probably the closest McCammon came to writing straight science-fiction in his longer fiction. The technology of both alien races is so advanced they see mankind as mere insects, an irritation, and they use our planet as their battleground of their war. The Border of the title, our planet, being their version of the trenches of World War One. The novel opens two years after their arrival when mankind is all but destroyed and the aliens have now begun to experiment on the survivors, turning them into weapons and other horrific monsters and bestial creations. The survivors on Earth call the two alien races ‘Gorgons’ and ‘Cyphers’ and as the twilight of mankind approaches a possible savior appears in the guise of a teenage boy, Ethan, who lost his memory after surviving a horrific alien attack which wiped out the rest of his group. With a strong and very cool echo of Swan Song, this boy is possibly the savior of humanity.
In this fantastic post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel, we are treated to some top-notch action sequences as both the Gorgans and Cyphers stalk Ethan as they are unsure what he is but want to experiment upon the secrets of his genetic makeup. The supporting characters are terrific, the friendships formed are beautiful and some of the death scenes heart-breaking. Every man and woman in this novel has lost so much, there are no hard-men, but there are lots of ordinary everyday heroes trying to survive and the empathy felt is overpowering. Along the way some of the alien creations are simply jaw-dropping, they have the ability to turn inanimate objects into living flesh, so trashed buses can become very dangerous killing machines. Humans who have become infected slowly change into something called ‘Grey Men’, these are particularly horrible creations which can grow two or three heads after a slow, painful, and horrible transformation into something no longer human. Although I loved this book I have mixed feelings about the ending which came together too neatly, but it’s a small quibble in a wonderful novel. It is a shame that it is so difficult and locate in paperback and has been particularly difficult to find, even in e-book format, in Europe until quite recently.
3. Swan Song (1987)
The majestic Swan Song ranks amongst the finest post-apocalyptic novels ever written
Swan Song is arguably my favourite ever supernatural post-apocalyptic novel. It is very well known and continually appears on ‘Best of’ lists, nevertheless, I cannot recommend it highly enough to the younger generation who enjoy end-of-the world fiction and might not have come across it. To call it merely excellent is a serious understatement; it’s amazing. Swan Song was published a few years after Stephen King’s The Stand and although they have their similarities, I prefer Swan Song and its panoramic vision of the destruction of earth after a nuclear war and the small seeds of hope which spread amongst the few survivors. It was terrific to see this novel featured at number 94 of the 2018 Great American Read which was a list of Americas most loved 100 books, mainly classics, indicating the novel has its admirers beyond the readers of horror and genre fiction world.
Although Swan Song has a good number of characters in its sprawling 900+ at it’s center we have what with a lesser writer could be a very cheesy story. In the wake of a nuclear holocaust, a washed-up professional wrestler becomes the sole protector of what becomes the world’s only hope for survival; a nine-year-old psychic girl who has a horrible radiation deformity upon her face which continues to grow and fester. The wrestler only sees the beauty in her soul, that sounds cheesy, but it’s so cool, and he’s a genuine hero. There is something very special about Sue “Swan” Wanda and soon others are drawn towards her or feel her power radiating in the distance. On the other side of the coin evil also walks the earth, hell-bent on destroying Sue and the last rays of hope with his own army of darkness. As I said, in lesser hands this ‘good versus evil’ tale would be just another post-apocalyptic novel, but in no time at all you’ll be rooting for Sue Wanda as she turns her trailer-trash green fingers into something special with the help of Josh Hutchins, the wrestler otherwise known as ‘Black Frankenstein’.
The emphatic characterization give this novel astonishing depth and set over a number of years we have the opportunity to see them both grow or become more evil. The bad guys are drawn just as well as the heroes and nobody creates a misfit as convincingly as Robert McCammon. On the dark-side there is none finer that Roland Croninger is a thirteen-year-old boy who survives the nuclear blast in an underground survivalist shelter and becomes the definition of evil. Let’s also not forget ‘The Man with the Scarlet Eye’ who is a fine an incarnation of demonic evil, and the hunter of Sue Wanda, you’re ever likely to come across. Along the way the President of the USA makes a surprise appearance and we hurtle towards a clash which will decide the fate of humanity.
4. The Listener (2018)
Beautifully unstated tale of a young telepathic black man in Depression era America
No author likes to hear their best work lies years in the past, so in 2018 McCammon made a triumphant return with The Listener, continuing a literary path which is impossible to pigeonhole. This meditative and thoughtful supernatural thriller set in the Great Depression of 1930s America is clearly the work of an older and mature author and sits comfortably amongst his best work. It is also a novel he probably could not have written in his youth. As this is a standalone novel, if you’ve never read McCammon before, this is a perfect place to start.
John Partlow is a con-man (a grifter) who weasels cash from poor unfortunates by scanning the obituaries in local newspapers and then turning up at the door of the deceased trying to sell 25 cent Bibles to the family for $5. This con escalates into a much nastier one; the kidnapping of a little girl. However, Partlow and his accomplice snatch a child who has the weird ability of hearing the thoughts of other people with the same gift. Recently, the little girl has been communicating with a young black man called Curtis, who treats his affliction as a curse. But when she calls out to him for help, what can he do? How can a black man help a white girl, and all the suspicion which surrounds him, in 1930s America without sounding mad, raising suspicion, or risk to his own life? The Listener is a powerful character driven novel with a subtle supernatural angel, a very tight plot, which will be devoured in a couple of days. You’ll love every beautifully crafted sentence.
The Listener also has one of my favorite opening paragraphs of recent years. Here goes:
“The Devil can be a man or woman. The Devil can be a hard spring in the seat of a car, a gnat in the eye, or the whack of a wooden baton on the iron bars of a jail cell. The Devil can be a flash of lightning, a swallow of bad whiskey, or a rotten apple slowly decaying a basketful of good ones. The Devil can be a belt across the back of a child, or a cardboard box, of cheap paperback Bibles swelling up in the hot seat of an eight-year-old faded green Oakland two-door sedan held together by rust and wires.
Which today, the Devil was.”
5. Baal (1978)
Forget Damien of ‘The Omen’ that little blighter has nothing on Baal!
It has been written that Robert McCammon is not a particular fan of his debut novel and at various times it has been hard to locate since its release forty years ago but is now easy enough to obtain as an ebook. However, if you’ve never read it, do not let McCammon’s misgivings put you off, I think it stands up very well and is an excellent supernatural page-turner. It’s an accomplished debut which is surely influenced by the smash-hit film The Omen, which was released in 1976 and has some similarities. However, the devil child Damien has nothing on this kid, which insists he be called “Baal” when he is sent to an orphanage after a family tragedy, of which he is the cause. Baal would probably eat Damien up for breakfast! The scenes when he recruits other lonely and impressionable children to be his first apostles are unsettling and amongst the strongest in the book.
One of the things I liked the most about this book is the telling of the story from before Baal was born, via different characters and time periods, right up until the apocalyptic ending. Things start atmospherically slow with a young couple marrying, then having their homelife is ruined by a vicious rape and a pregnancy which tears their marriage apart. The circumstances of the birth effect the man and wife in very different ways. Flip forward a few years and we meet a child in a Catholic orphanage who both perplexes and scares both the nuns and priests, with a personality so powerful he begins to gather his own followers. Unsettling scenes include the rape of a nun by a small boy. Further jumps see us head to the Middle East and eventually the Arctic with some outstanding and fast paced horror sequences. All the men of science and faith who come up against Baal feel they can discredit him, that is until they meet him and feel his power. The scenes of religious fanaticism in the Middle East were outstanding and the breakdown of the region had some uncanny similarities to the crisis these countries have had in recent years. Baal is typical of horror being released in the late 1970s and was a fine debut and a sure sign of better things to come.
6. Boy’s Life (1991)
Perfectly observed fantasy coming-of-age tale in small town America
There are few better books out there than Boy’s Life which effortlessly insert the reader into the mind of an adolescent with such authenticity and clarity. It is also one of my favorite coming-of-age tales which cleverly blends horror, thriller and fantasy into a snapshot of small-town life in the early 1960s. The dangers of bullies, roaming free on your bike, the beauty of the never-ending summer holidays, but also lurking in the background an unspecified darkness, are all elements of this intoxicating tale. The blurring of fantasy and reality truly merge together and on occasions you’ll question what was real, and what was distilled from imagination of Cory Mackenson who loyally helps his father with his daily milk-round before heading to school. The story has several inter-linked story strands, with family problems at the root of many of them. Cory and his father witness a car crashing into the local river and as a result Tom MacKenson has recurring nightmares and Cory vows to solve the mystery of the dead man found drowned, handcuffed, in the car. Through the eyes of Cory, the novel also covers many broad themes including racism, segregation, baseball, friendship, religion and corruption. As the novel progresses, the plot thickens, and the boy edges towards solving the murder.
I’m surprised Boy’s Life has never been filmed, or turned into a television series, as a few of the intricate plots are as vivid as anything you’ll ever read. A small sample of the highlights include Cory’s possibly supernatural bike which he names ‘The Rocket’, a mythical creature which lives in the local roves called ‘Old Moses’ and ‘The Lady’ an ancient venerable black-lady who is the local expert in voodoo. Straddling fantasy, horror and coming-of-age story-telling, Boy’s Life has nostalgia for the bygone era of small-town America and it has rarely been done better than this, rivaling even the best of Stephen King. Even if you’re too young to have experienced it, Boy’s Life will take you on a time-warp back to Zephyr, Alabama, and this place is real. If, as an adult, you’ve ever returned to a place you lived as a kid and found it to be much smaller than you remembered it in your dreams you’ll get on with Cory Mackenson.
7. The Five (2011)
An obscure guitar band goes on the road for one last blast
My initial attraction to The Five was the mammoth list of acknowledgements! This included several pages of rock bands, both famous and obscure, all with something in common; Robert McCammon was a fan. And he has exceptional taste, with some very cool names appearing on his hallowed list of favorites. This is a non-supernatural novel and when The Five was published it was the authors first contemporary novel for a number of years and if you’ve only read his horror fiction this is well worth investigating, especially if you enjoy books with a strong musical theme.
The Five are a struggling alternative rock group from the Austin music scene who finds themselves the obsessional target of an ex–Marine sniper who has mental health problems. Whilst they are giving a local TV interview they say something which triggers a switch in his head and he begins to stalk them. But before the novel heads into thriller territory it sets the scene beautifully, describing a band who are going nowhere, touring the American Southwest, living hand to mouth and hoping to sell a few t–shirts to buy enough gas to make it to the next gig. The band is on the point of disintegration and the rock and roll background is detailed incredibly well and before long you’ll have their music (or how you perceive it to be) tapping away in your head. The clubs are vividly described and the band members have distinctive and convincing voices. This was brave book to write as it may have disappointed many of his horror fans, but McCammon never was predictable in a literary sense. I wonder which band best describes the sound of The Five? What do you think Mr. McCammon?
8. Blue World (1989)
Wide-ranging anthology of short stories and lengthy novella
Robert McCammon has also some terrific short stories and novellas on the market, a number of which are collected in Blue World. There are a couple of versions of this anthology on the market, the later editions include a few extra stories, I have the 2015 version from Subterranean Press. The original 1989 version concludes with the lengthy novella Blue World and a number of those included can now be bought individually on Kindle or are available on Kindle Unlimited. Coming it at just under 200 pages, with the same name as the title, “Blue World” was by far the longest of the 16 entries. In fact, McCammon has written better novellas than this non-supernatural story, so I am surprised this was chosen as the centerpiece to the anthology. Priest John Lancaster finds himself attracted to blue movie star Debra Rocks who lives in close vicinity to his church, after investigating the local strip-joints in an attempt to save them from eternal damnation. Soon he is sucked into something more dangerous when he meets Debra in the flesh and has to confront his own moral dilemma whilst a killer is on a different type of crusade. There was nothing wrong with this novella, but the shorter supernatural entries had much more kick to them and Blue World seemed a tad long.
“He’ll Come Knocking At Your Door” was one of my favorites, a sneaky tale in which Dan Burgess lives the ideal life with a perfect family. Life is great and he wants for nothing, but when Dan is summoned to an urgent Halloween meeting with some town locals, he learns that there is no such thing as a free ride and now it is time to pay the piper and the price is a steep one. “Nightcrawlers” was fun a tale of murder and intrigue which happens in Cheryl’s diner and the mystery that unfolds with the arrival of a Vietnam veteran called Price. Nightmares, mental awareness, and the fear of the unknown are issues hidden within the unsettling tale. “Doom City” was another beauty, Brad wakes up in the morning and finds his wife has turned into a skeleton overnight, and when he ventures outside for help living people are in very short supply. If you don’t like bees, avoid “Yellowjacket Summer” which is a terrific tale of a man who has power over insects on a remote highway diner stop. The author uses both the desert heat and fear of yellowjacket bees to great effect in this “stinger” of a story. A further favorite was “Red House” the oddball yarn of a factory worker who gets obsessed by his new neighbor’s house, after it is painted red, the only one in the area. The additional stories in the later addition sit nicely with the originals including “Strange Candy” about a guy who eats a piece of Halloween candy which gives him memories which are not his own, but perhaps include closure for others. “White” was a very gory tale of a guy snatched and tortured for information he may or not possess. The final additional story “Children of the Bedtime Machine” closes the anthology on a high, a melancholic vaguely post-apocalyptic tale of a machine which helps an old woman sleep at night.