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Spotlight on: Robert R. McCammon

Books Reviewed:
Boy's Life
Speaks the Nightbird, Volume I: Judgment of the Witch
Speaks the Nightbird, Volume II: Evil Unveiled
Swan Song
The Wolf's Hour

To arrange to have products considered for review, send an email to craigsbookclub@yahoo.com.

Speaks the Nightbird, Volume I: Judgment of the Witch by Robert McCammon Robert McCammon, Speaks the Nightbird, Volume I: Judgment of the Witch
Robert McCammon, Speaks the Nightbird, Volume II: Evil Unveiled

Seven years after the Salem witch trials, the Southern colonies are seeing some of the same action. The citizens of the new settlement of Fount Royal blame recent widow Rachel Howarth for all their recent tribulations, including the murders of the local preacher and her own husband, and a rash of fires that has claimed some of the town's important buildings.

Traveling magistrate Isaac Woodward, accompanied by his clerk Matthew Corbett, has been called to preside over the trial that is planned purely to speed the execution of Madam Howarth as a witch. It the majority of the town had its way about it, she would be burned immediately, but the magistrate is determined to see that justice is served. It is Matthew, however, who is most interested in pursuing the final truth of the matter, especially once the evidence -- although damning on the surface -- just doesn't seem to gel properly.

Speaks the Nightbird was Robert McCammon's first published novel in a decade and was finally released along with the announcement of his retirement. Written years before, it took a long time to publish because publishers expected him to write only horror, that they could sell, and they didn't know how to market this new work (even though he had been leaving the horror genre over the last few books). McCammon became thoroughly disgusted with the industry and longed to wash his hands of it entirely, focusing instead on fatherhood.

This was unfortunate for us because Speaks the Nightbird is his best book to date, even, in many ways, triumphing his previous masterpieces, Boy's Life and Swan Song. It is an epic historical novel combining suspense with a murder mystery, American colonial history, and a little romance, the likes of which I have never seen.

McCammon uses this somewhat-familiar format to make several comments about human nature, and especially people's responses to the unknown (and the mob mentality). The accused's foreign heritage (Portuguese, in this case -- not far from the hated Spaniards) and dark skin plays a sizable role in her accusation, but McCammon makes subtle use of this fact.

Speaks the Nightbird, Volume II: Evil Unveiled by Robert McCammon The setting is so clearly laid out that I felt as if I could draw a map of Fount Royal, and I still have a clear picture of many of the locations in my mind. Also, the characters brought out genuine emotion from me, whether it was love or hate. Part of what makes Speaks the Nightbird so appealing is the realism in McCammon's portrayal of colonial times. The amount of research that must have gone into it is very apparent and admirable. (Though McCammon's use of stately words like "gaol" and "poppet" is at first distracting, it soon becomes simply part of the book's beauty.)

Originally published in one hardcover volume by River City Publishing, McCammon's usual paperback purveyor Pocket Books decided to split the book into two separate volumes. Volume II: Evil Unveiled is not a separate story; it simply picks up where Volume I left off. However, it does have a different tone, emphasizing the coming-of-age and murder-mystery aspects of the story, and winding down the story in general towards its completion.

Young Matthew defies Magistrate Woodward and continues to look for evidence of Rachel's innocence in the few days remaining before her judgment is to be delivered. In the largest sense, this is about him becoming his own man. He also discovers love and this makes the investigation even more emotional and suspenseful. His discoveries regarding the citizens of Fount Royal are stunning to say the least. Apparently absolutely nothing is as it seems in this town and McCammon reveals these secrets with aplomb, leading us along willingly until he decides to spring another surprise on us. This novel could have been a lot shorter, but most of the reasons I liked it so much would have been lost.

The end descends into the murder-mystery cliche of the perpetrator being discovered and the "detective" (Matthew) offering up his speculation as to what happened. This part is fun, if you're a mystery buff, but actually breaks the mood a bit. Luckily, McCammon followed it up with a whiz-bang ending that left me -- after nine hundred pages -- still wanting more! Also luckily, it kept the door opened for the possible sequel that has recently been announced, The Queen of Bedlam. The author, as stated in an interview early in 2005, hopes to write four or five books with Matthew Corbett (though not of this length), and I for one will be eagerly awaiting their publication.

Here's hoping that the success of Speaks the Nightbird has revived McCammon's interest in writing (and publishing). He is one of our greats and should be supported in whatever genre he chooses to write.

The Wolf's Hour by Robert R. McCammon Robert R. McCammon, The Wolf's Hour

Yes, it's a horror novel. Yes, it's a werewolf novel. Yes, it's a World War II novel. Yes, it's a spy novel. But it's also all of these things wrapped into one.

Robert R. McCammon has, in The Wolf's Hour, written the apotheosis of the werewolf novel. It embraces the mythology while at the same time expanding and transcending it in ways never done before. The Wolf's Hour is such an ambitious undertaking that it should have failed. I mean, it is a werewolf novel while being a spy novel and combines the two seamlessly. It is a credit to McCammon's ability that it succeeds and then some.

Young Mikhail Gallatinov's family is killed on a picnic while he is chasing a lost kite into the nearby woods. As the killers are looking for him, they are attacked by a pack of wolves who bite Mikhail but do not kill him, instead bringing him back to their home. Turns out they are werewolves led by Wiktor, who immediately adopts Mikhail as a son, taking him under his paw to teach him the ways of being a man and a wolf. Along the way, Wiktor poses a question that leaves Mikhail/Michael pondering for the rest of the book: "What is the lycanthrope in the eyes of God?"

McCammon's powers of description are awesome. Just from reading this book, I feel that if I were ever turned into a werewolf, that I would recognize the symptoms beforehand. His descriptions of the changes and the various personalities that the pack have--not only as people but as wolves--are another part of the joy of reading it.

The Wolf's Hour is really two books in one. The first half interlaces Mikhail's life among the pack with "Michael Gallatin"'s preparation for his mission in the second half. We follow young Mikhail through his trials as the transformation sickens and nearly kills him; he watches the others metamorphose but he resists a full change; and Wiktor teaches him Shakespeare, Dante, and world history from all the books amassed in their home. (This is really the heart of the novel and the main reason that it is this month's recommendation. I have been telling everyone about this book and now I'm telling you.)

The second half mainly concerns Michael's mission, following him as he accompanies German film star Chesna van Dorne to discover the meaning of "Iron Fist" which takes him through a concentration camp, on a train playing a cat-and-mouse game with big game hunter Harry Sandler, and eventually preventing the Nazis' attempt to prevent D-Day. This part is still good but I think I would have enjoyed it more were I a WWII buff, which I am not. War as a subject does not interest me, so I was reading this part hoping for Michael to change into a wolf, which he does often enough.

The ending leaves room for a sequel and McCammon has said that we would be interested in revisiting this character--the only one he has said that about. (One would think, however, that his recently announced retirement would prevent that from ever taking place.) Michael Gallatin is one of the more interesting characters--definitely--that I have read and will be on the lookout for this purported sequel. But in the meantime, I'll have to satisfy myself with McCammon's other novels, including the newly released Speaks the Nightbird, his first published novel since Gone South ten years ago.

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon Robert R. McCammon, Swan Song

The first McCammon book I read was Swan Song. This novel of a world changed beyond recognition after nuclear war is immensely engrossing. The comparisons to Stephen King's The Stand are unavoidable (apocalyptic event, small groups of people traveling cross-country, a charismatic leader) but McCammon makes the story his very own.

The characters are some of the best I've come across, Swan especially. She is the innocence and hope at the heart of the novel and you immediately root for her through all her troubles. Sister Creep and her psychic ring are along to help out, though, for there are some bad people who await.

Epic in scope, Swan Song approaches 1000 pages. This may turn some off, but the pages are full and not a word is wasted. Fans of The Stand may scoff at the similar plot, but I can say that, even as a fan of The Stand myself, I was able to lose myself in this horrible world and forget all about Stephen King's.

This is the book that made me a fan of Robert R. McCammon, and I, for one, will be sad to see him leave the publishing industry. But at the same time, I respect him for standing up for his ideals and not letting "the man" dictate what is presented to the public under the McCammon name.

Boy's Life by Robert R. McCammon Robert R. McCammon, Boy's Life

Cory Mackenson (doppelganger to author Robert McCammon) is about to experience the summer of his life. Up until now, life in small town Zephyr, Alabama, has been nothing much to get excited about. But one day, while Cory accompanies his father on his milkman route, a car flies across the road in front of them and splashes into Saxon's Lake. Cory's father Tom dives in the lake to attempt a rescue and comes face to face with a naked man handcuffed to the steering wheel garrotted with copper wire. Obviously unsavable, Tom swims back to the surface, but that image will haunt him for many months to come.

And this is only the beginning of Boy's Life, a suspenseful fictional memoir that succeeds in capturing the magic of childhood. While his father suffers the effect of haunting dreams, Cory is introduced to the many quirky characters that make up many small towns. The Lady is the local clairvoyant who seems to know what Tom's problem is, Vernon Thaxter is the son of a reclusive millionaire and so is allowed to run around town naked with impunity, and Nemo Corliss is the new kid--a boy with a talent for baseball so natural that it truly hurts the reader to see that his mother won't let the fragile boy play.

These and other people (and creatures like Lucifer the monkey and the "creature from the lost world") co-exist with Cory in a town shaken up by murder. But this storyline is almost secondary to Cory's discoveries about himself (and his need to be a writer) and the world around him, including a bicycle that has a mind of its own, and seeing his first real naked woman (not found in the pages of National Geographic).

McCammon, as usual, writes like gangbusters and though Boy's Life is on the long side, those almost six hundred pages fly through the reader's fingers much like Cory's bicycle, Rocket. (If you like Boy's Life, be sure to also read Summer of Night by Dan Simmons, another horror/nostalgia piece.)

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