THE SELF-CONDEMNED NOVELS OF ROBERT McCAMMON
Robert R. McCammon rode
out of the horror tsunami of the 80s, obviously led by King—Carrie,
the other Big K in perfect publishing position with Whispers,
Koontz' breakthrough novel of 1980.(1) McCammon saw print with a dozen novels during the decade, starting
1978 and winding down with Gone South of 1992.
He then “retired”, citing personal reasons plus a conviction
that the horror genre had indeed gone south with too much glamorama
a la Hollywood, turning it into “rage and violence. Such things
are all too common in our world: are we here to try to make things
better, or to try to compete with the heavy darkness that is
bludgeoning people's minds into Silly Putty? I, for one, want
no part in layering more darkness onto that weight, and calling
it a "fun entertainment."(2) After
bucking the Slasher/BashHer trend highlighted by Silence
of the Lambs,(3) he
re-invented himself as an historical novelist with Speaks
the Nightbird of 2002.
Since then, McCammon has refused to
renew the copyrights on his first 4 books--Baal of
Sin and The Night Boat of 1980, and They
Thirst from 1981--effectively banning any further printings.
He doesn't think these “simply early efforts . . . [are] very
deep or anything”,(4) as
they are more learning studies than important, lasting works.
But, more importantly, he has put his financial blood where his
mouth is in regards to his earlier denouncement.
as of 01/25/2011
According to a news release by
Press, they are re-printing the earlier novels in
signed, limited formats, obviously under McCammon's approval.
At $75 to $250 a pop, so much for "financial blood where his
mouth is". I have not followed any gossip around the internet
track because I don't care. What's left to say?
Anyone familiar with McCammon's oeuvre has got
to be concerned with this thinning of his herd. Surely, the later
books of his horror phase are more subtle, polished, and endearing,
relying less on the heavy hand of gorror and schlock. Boy's
1991, with its Bradbury-esque atmosphere of nostalgia and lost
innocence, turns the supernatural more to magic than malice,
and is considered by many to be his magnum opus.
saunter into any used book store and you'll find McCammon
well represented in the dwindling horror section. That's
because this stuff's just plain fun to read. It's quirky,
it's wide-eyed and curious and nail-biting, and, even though
the plots are classic and pretty well worn, there's an enthusiasm
pumping and thumping through freshly-washed setpieces that
feels not so much as constructing from actualities as unrestraining
their possibilities. McCammon's leaps are like jumping over
hiking trail washouts, compared to Koontz's more—I don't
floatings over unassigned territory. There's an insinuating
weirdness to Koontz, whereas McCammon is just plain audacious.
And King, well, he's exactly that during
this period of the 80s; there is no comparison regarding him.
In the Afterword, McCammon explains that “Baal is
my Angry Young Man novel” (Pocket Books, ISBN 0671664840,
c.1978, reprinted 1988, p.345). It was his first work and
written when he was 25 year old, so there is foundation to
say Baal is rudimentary and pretty maladroit stuff
with lots and lots of petulant angst burning up this Canaanite
pagan demon god.
It is not boring, however, as McCammon'll
keep you hopping with disconcerting adjectives and extortionate
Structurally, Baal is served
up in the traditional three courses: start, continue, stop.
Devil-seeded from a brutal, back-alley rape, Baal toddles through
his mindmelted mom's killing of her new husband, runs amuck
in numerous foster homes, then is stuck at 10-years old in
a Boston Home for Boys bullying the other orphans with eyes “as
cold and deadly as upraised rifle barrels” (p.58). When a naïve
Sister Rosamond befriends him, he fills her sleep with dream-fucks,
gathers some chosen disciples among the boys, rapes her ritual
style for real one night, then burns her up in bed along with
the rest of the building, including all the priests, nuns,
and other unfortunates.
The next installment finds Baal leading
hysterically-religious, uncontained mobs in the desert of Kuwait.
He's the foretold Messiah, the coming Prophet, to this gathering
stratum of humanity. From the wealthy, Arab potentates in their
gold-embroidered tents with red-rich rugs, arriving in exotic
cars with “their back sides raked by the rocks and bodies of
the poor” (p.132), to the “protruding bones, sunken gums, and
listless eyes” of the poverty-stricken and sick “people [that]
swarmed like mad frothing animals” (p.131) over the “hard-packed,
excrement-covered sand” (p.129). If there is a human hero,
we meet him here as Dr. James Virga, professor of theology.
We also meet Baal's opponent for his Mankind's Demise campaign
in Michael, never named as the Archangel himself but possessing
the knowledge and power of that celebrated rabbinical super-soldier
of the Jews.
The endgame is played out in the white
purity of the Artic. Since we're all still here and
not “in the flames of lust and madness [where] the demon
prince bestrides the earth” (cover blurb)—or, are we?—it's
safe to assume Baal is effectively vanquished. The strength
of—and probably the only reason to read—this novel is McCammon's
impressive visualizations and fear-squeezing pacing of desperate
if not abysmal situations. He saves the best for last, as
Baal has to be crowbared out of his elaborate labyrinth of
ice corridors, “filled with corpses of children, frozen like
butterflies under glass” (p.302).
So as not to
come off too funda-fanatical with his Heaven and Hell polarities,
the author tosses in some last minute metaphysics. “There is
completeness in the combination of good and evil,” Michael
explains as an addendum to all this carnage, chaos, and cruelty. “Satan
has never been a secondary power, he is the equalizing darkness
to Jehovah's light . . . The cosmos was, and is, a combination
of celestial and demonic energy” (p.315). By clearing up pre-Creation
forces, McCammon moves out of the traditional Kabala universe
which seeded the names and fundamental positionings borrowed
in Baal for the cheesy harmonies of Gnosticism so
embraced by modern New Agers.
And before I forget, Baal has
one of the groaniest similes I've ever read:
Her tongue slipped
into his mouth and explored it like a wet Columbus, though
the world was hardly new.
|Bethany's Sin is typical
boilerplate horror, opening with virgins Evan Reid, his wife
Kay, and their 6-year old girl, Laurie, arriving to the town
of Bethany's Sin. This peculiarly-named Pennsylvania village
of less than a thousand looks refreshing after the suffocation
and hopeless expanses of gritty steel mill towns. It is a new,
dreamed-for life of “well-kept green lawns . . . dignified-looking
houses . . . picket fences and gates and driveways” (Pocket Books,
PB, ISBN 0671664824, c.1980, p.33). Ironically, the world they're
running from “with its dark, outstretched claws” (p.32) ain't
nuttin' compared to the bloody battle axes—they're referred to
as bipennis for some needed castration humor--waitin'
for ‘em in this evaginated, Stepford-like burg.
Evan is a war veteran with the ‘Nam Nitemare haunt—PTSD—so
he's having problems distinguishing between The Real and the
Memorex, and, just as in The Boonies of Vietnam, duty, courage
and responsibility are gonna be the big motivators when the
girls get grabbed, as you know they will. This plot template
is all about the threat, so it's a shame the publicists give
it up as the back cover hook. So what horrible thing is “approaching
from a maelstrom of choking dust” (p.111)?
Single-breasted Amazon women—they abide a mastectomy ritual
to improve their bow and arrow shooting skills—riding down “the
destroyers of all things good and beautiful—men” (p.168). They
are equipped with a lot more than just mascara, lipstick, and
halter tops, because these armor-clad succubae are not really
interested in sex. It is .50-cal carnage they want. It's more
complicated, but essentially spirits from the mid-1200BC Grecian
capital city of Themiscrya are breeching through Modern Millies
and turning them into “bloodthirsty female killers who look upon
battle as recreation,” including sportily cutting off their husband's
arms or legs to “strengthen the male's sexual organs” (p.246).
The plot of discovery then banishment is predictable, as is the
sub-cast of adversaries, supporters, and hangers-on. There is
no discernable social, political, or ecological subtext to frown
all the fun.
The writing is not as amateurish as Baal with
its string of loopy mixed metaphors, but it is quite rough-draft
wordy, especially when chopping through the inner dialogues of
the characters making bad decisions on worse information. But,
on the other hand, McCammon's such a barnstormer, his prose so
ecstatic and fierce, that you'll give up a lot of comfort for
the rocket ride. Listen to the naysayers on the future of Bethany's
When the Amazons taught their daughters
how to wield the fire-edged ax of wrath . . . and the
legacy of evil and murder and rage passed on from generation
to generation, their lust for violence would turn against
whole communities. They would strike in the night, swift
and without warning, and this would be a place of ghost
towns where dogs howled in darkness and the cry of eagles
shrilled among the broken ruins. Whispered tales of night
terror would make this a desolate, haunted land.
I mean, yeah! Can you find me a rental?
The Night Boat runs three heroes—well,
four, actually, but I'll get to her in awhile—and
one adversary hiding 50 water-logged jumbies. McCammon has opened
up his 3rd-person narratives to incorporate walk-on-off characters—they
work like doors from the main hallway in a carnival funhouse
romp-through—to add interlaced spankings of splatter integral
for plot movement or vignettes of violence just for the squeamy
tingle. You only know farmer Cockrell Goodloe for 4 1/2 pages
as he creeps out to the darkened pigpen to discover “things that
appeared human and inhuman at the same time . . . [with eyes
burning] like the raging centers of hell” (Pocket PB, ISBN 0671664832,
c.1980, reprinted 1988, p.146) chewing through his terrified
hogs. But it puckers you right up. There are also whole chapters
devoted to flashback scenes.
It becomes apparent that McCammon is striving like some
of the great film directors to place winning works in multiple
mean, okay, they're all films like this is all horror, and he's
dropping a bomb in each category. Baal is
Sin is Possession. The Night Boat is
Zombies/Haunted House. They Thirst—the one
And a WWII German U-boat surfacing in the Caribbean with
its crew intact—well, kinda—and ready to rumble is a pretty creative
Haunted House story. Our discoverer—David Moore—has a pre-existing
condition to Haunted, as he's the surviving captain in the sinking
of his family's boat that claimed his young wife and daughter
in the backstory. Our land-locked hero is Steven Kip, constable
of the setting's fishing village on an island somewhere—both
physically and attitudinally—between Jamaica and Haiti. He represents
the civilized society long-established by foreign colonists and
feels duty-bound to the still-existing concords of the British
West Indian tradition. The island natives living in their own
jungle village hate and refuse this so-called protection, as
expressed by Cheyne, Chief Father of the Carib. When the anacri boat
shelled his village during WWII, his father died and his mother
was driven insane. Now, he feels the Nazis are back “to rip pieces
of my soul away” (p.319). If Sue Grafton wrote his sections,
it'd hafta be called Cheyne is for Comeuppance.
Our final hero against these zombie bubbleheads comes
from the assumed voice of reason and categorization of the Western
World: the British Museum, Jamaica branch. She's Jana Thornton
and McCammon's first heroine. While she's not a love interest,
she is assigned some dialogue that is noteworthy, especially
as info dumps. Yeah, she needs to be saved at the end, but she
doesn't run screaming from this “slime vomited up from the guts
of the sea” (p.187). Essentially, she's just another dude, but
with a menstrual cycle.
As with Baal, there is the belief
that the Universe is governed by forces beyond mankind's control.
So you won't miss stepping into this bottomless puddle, McCammon
names Moore's earlier family skiff's coffin Destiny's
Child. Moore can only balance a guilt-ridden existence
with his own life's sacrifice in good cause, so poetically referred
to in the last paragraphs as “a small boat heading into the sun
with her sails filled and all the great expanse of the sky beyond
it” (p.343). Like Cheyne—and even more so like Evan Reid from Bethany's
Sin—Moore dies as a perceived duty to family and/or tribe.
But, more importantly here, eternity's seesaw returns to level
when its antipodal riders null each other's weight.
|However, there's a slight stink raised and
it fumes suspiciously like an ill-worn conceit. Because of its
devastating shelling of the island during WWII, the Night Boat
got a voodou spell by the local houngan to trap the
sub underwater while the crew “would starve for air, they would
decay, but their deaths would be withheld” (p.260). It's clearly
a Revenge in, Revenge out cancellation, but what wafts up wrong
is in the final tally. U-198 goes to the Locker for sure, but
the other side balances with the deaths of Cheyne and Moore—one
local, one commoner, respectfully—while tossing the survival
ring to Kip and Jana—both representatives of ruling colonial
attitudes and policies. I mean, whose war is it, really? Seems
like the average citizen gets the algae end of the seaweed stick
For all its intrepidity, though, The Night Boat seems
strangely without ballast. There is that grinding mesmerization
with pageturning, but, withstanding the predictability of the
plot, the gale through any sweat-soaked, fright-night sheets
doesn't howl like it should. It's probably due to having no mastermind
villain on board. Wilhelm Korrin is the kommandant of the specter
sub, but he shows the iniquitous leadership of a bowsprit. There's
certainly not the malignancy of Baal or the fevered misogyny
of Kathryn Drago from Bethany's Sin.
As a result, we're left with a big, submersible rustbucket that
froths out tattered, spume-sucking deadheads roaming around on
occasion, chewing through life and property, eerily similar
to the shore leave dockings of distinctly human sailors.
It's not enough.
They need more cowbell.
They Thirst is
considered to be McCammon's finest work of the condemned,
first 4 novels. And it is—by sheer, outlandish temerity alone.
As far as vampire novels go, it's running in the vein between
Girls of 1987 and Somtow's Vampire Junction of
1984. It contains his most character population, and, although
it is not the worldwide staging of Baal and limits
its locations to Los Angeles, it is far more expansive in atmospheric
detail, structure and complexity, and symbolic intent. It feels
like the shadowboxing of a contender about to step into the best-seller
McCammon leads off his hydra-headed
attack with his obligatory Prologue, this time a childhood
recollection from a main character who's Dad pulls a Monkey's
Paw-like return and takes a shotgun blast from Ma for his trouble.
The author then immediately spreads out his ensemble technique, bringing up a murderous,
albino biker named Kobra then developing his opposite with
a world-weary Los Angeles Detective Captain of Homicide named
Andy Palatazin. Besides being the novel's central character,
Palatazin also piggybacks to this plasma party the only sympathetic
spectral character and real heroine in the manifestations of
his dead Mother, Nina.
We also meet Gayle Clarke, a young, ambitious female
reporter from the Tattler, which is obviously the only news
source in “the city of perpetual summer, the land of golden
youth” (Kinnell UK, ISBN 1870532228, c.1981, p.23) that'd print
anything about the upcoming vampire invasion.
Next under the flashlight is Walter Benefield, affectionately
known as the Roach. He's your banal MR man-child
with girl-strangling hands the size of Big Ben and a totally-warped
sexual obsession for his incest-loving, prostitute mother,
who he is proverbially searching for. The current serial killer
terrorizing this “gaudy carnival of neon pulsat[ing] over porno
movie houses, bars, discos, and liquor stores” (p.67), he's
earned his nickname by filling his victims' mouths with cockroaches.
But lately he's been chloroforming them and driving up into
the Hollywood Hills to the crumbling mansion of murdered horror
cult film star and S&M fancier Orlon Kronsteen, and delivering
his teener streethustlers to The Master.
Then there's Wes Richer and his statuesque, Ouija board-wielding
girlfriend, Solange. He's got a current hit comedy on network
and she has enough Bantu blood to take notice when the planchette
says “EVIL . . . THEY THIRST” (p.95). She knows what nganga (p.119)
means even if we don't.
The anointed is repped by Father Ramon
Silvera, a dedicated parish priest suffering his last years
with the “death dance of the muscles” (p.178)—Lou
Gehrig's disease. He's a hands-on kinda disciple of Yahweh,
easily bitch-fisting a drug dealer out of the neighborhood
and, since he's the Vampire King's antithetical opposite, with
him through the end.
And, just when you think you've met all the capital
characters, Tommy Chandler—he debuts halfway through the novel—the
11-year old horrorfester with cutouts from Forry's Famous Monsters
of Filmland mag stuck behind his pocket protector full of Bic
pens, lets you in on what it's like being labeled the “chickenshit
fairy fuckface” (p.261) of his school. This is McCammon's roundabout
way of foreshadowing—he utilizes a more conventional version
better known as telegraphing concerning
the “unstable rock” (p.171) the castle's built upon—because,
if you know your stereotypes, Tommy's introductory abuse can
go nowhere but to prove his heroic mettle in the final pages.
If anyone survives, it'll be him.
And speaking of the
tunnel rat and aging hippie holdover Johnny “Ratty” Ratkins,
with his Timothy Leary for President T-shirt, wild grey beard,
electric-blue eyes, and vials of amyl nitrate, is a welcome
retrocolic addition to a harebrained final assault on the
castle via the sewers under Hollywood Boulevard. Which, if
you're wondering, don't really exist.
As the previous novel, The Night Boat suffers
from not having a human-shaped villain of imposing presence, They
Thirst makes up for this with triplets. Kobra is a brazen
psychopath even before he becomes a vampire. He slaughters a bar
full of “shitkickers” along
with their jukebox just for “the bloody smell” and to feel “electric
with life” (p.19). Roach is a one-jolt Igor stuck in a mental
arroyo of twisted sexual and murderous need. Although he does not
ingest the roaches himself, it is hard not to see some channeling
from Stoker's Dracula through
the memorable padded roomer, Renfield. Coincidentally, the celebrated
Count also travels to Los Angeles—err, I mean, London—to be among
the “teeming millions” (Heritage Press, reprint copyrighted 1965,
from Chapter IV, “Jonathan Harker's Journal”, p.58).
pestiferous pyramid is, of course, The Master himself, aka Prince
Conrad Vulkan, King of the Vampires. And here's where McCammon
throws the tropes backatcha. As leader, you'd expect refinement
from centuries of experience that'd take Kobra and Roach's
brand of malevolence to greater diabolical levels through,
well, vulpine cunning. After all, Vulkan was a young, Hungarian
nobleman who, in 1342 AD, disappeared in a carriage crash and
has presumably been working the undead lifestyle successfully
ever since. He's overwhelmed thousands of humans for their
blood; he can read and control human minds; his taste buds
will identify a hundred thousand flavors; he communicates with
dogs, rats, bats, and flies, and can even summon up a bilious
cloud or two.
But there's a coupla things you
need to know about Conrad: 1, he answers to a father-like figure
he calls the Headmaster, and 2, he's more a modern-day, ego-whining
teenager than an 800-year old Master. In fact, if it wasn't
for the backstory, it's conceivable to think the Prince took
a hiatus from vampirism and became Baal some novels back. His
wannabe card reads Alexander the Great, who was 20 years old
when proclaimed King. Vulkan's only three years shy at 17,
and he's already generaling a couple of million bloodsuckers
in the LA basin.
Immortal and ageless Prince Vulkan is, of course, the
credo of a youth-dominated pseudo-culture force fed to us by
the greatest promulgation machine in human history. This SOS
had a lot more screech to it 30 years ago, and not Las Vegas,
nor New York, but Los Angeles/Hollywood has gotta be the consummate
sound stage for its transmission. Vulkan is “a fucking black-as-sin
Peter Pan” (p.485) and Southern California houses two titular
his petulant leadership skills and tantrum-throwing strategy
sessions, it's preposterous to imagine that he could execute
a Bloefeld-like program of domination by his bloodsucking hordes.
It is short-sighted—not to mention poor planning—to add competition
among the demon soldiers for a dwindling food source while
taking over the world. Conrad is a child, and, like a child,
he has been given instructions as surely as Hollywood and Madison
Avenue have on which notions and contrivances to sell. He's
just not mature enough to maintain the working gimmicks and
find the loopholes tunneling humanity's fatal flaws.
Ah, the Headmaster.
McCammon's universe is dominated by the
Christian ethic, or, at least, by its names and terminology. “God
made mankind . . . and Satan made the vampire” (p.329), one
character says, and they are continuously battling for Man's
soul. If so, They
Thirst is a rather Biblical skirmish. The Headmaster
provides the sandstorm that brings the whole Mojave desert
to blast Los Angeles down to bare metal as surely as Jehovah
typhoons the huge LA basin under 200 feet of ocean, turning
it into a “cauldron
of holy water . . . [so] all the evil would be cleansed” (p.496).
But you don't read McCammon for ecclesiastical nuance. They
Thirst is like—to paraphrase Frank Zappa—cruisin' for burgers
in downtown LA. You're familiar with streets, avenues, and freeways,
but it's exploring all the side roads
and alleys looking for that unusual and perfect sensory rush—or
burger stand to rival Tommy's—that really makes the trip.
Like tuning in the car radio to hear not Wolfman Jack
but DJ Tiger Eddie motormouthing where the young flesh is located
for the vampire hunting parties. (p.378)
Or calling an ambulance only to have the EMTs chew through
the injured. (p.290)
Then there's the packed disco dance floor where looking
for the partner of your dreams amongst those “with hunger in
their eyes, their childlike faces vulpine and as pale as the
ashes of a long-dead fire” (p.279) could be literally life
Okay, how ‘bout merging onto the freeway and facing
not typical stalled gridlock, but a wind storm of such magnitude
that you've never seen “so much sand without a bottle of Coppertone
. . . and a transistor radio beside the chair” (p.345).
McCammon throws in an old-fashioned rumble between rival
street gangs, a mortuary laid out like the House of Usher with
boxed inhabitants in clown makeup and smoking cigarettes, cemeteries
tossed for their coffins leaving the dirt nappers on the lawn
waiting for room service. Like the eyes of the undead eerily
seen through their translucent, closed eyelids, this read's
all about the details.
If you've got your Sneer Screen in place, this novel
is going to be a disappointment. It is easy to tear through
all the clichés and stereotypes, description mistakes
of the Los Angeles landscape,(7) or
the bombastic writing style using overexerted prose. Admittedly,
the novel is too feathered, losing focus with spinning down
stories like Rico Esteban and his underaged, prenado girlfriend
lost in the barrio. The amended story arcs of Mitchell Gideon,
the Mortuary King, and Paige LaSanda, the “stunning, ash-blond” (p.168)
real estate agent could probably be eliminated. Even using
Gayle Clarke for a Lazarus confrontation with Roach at the
end can't save the character of the bucket-of-blood reporter
from fading into the page like disappearing ink.
Yes, there's lots of extraneous stuff creeping around.
Fans call it atmosphere.
This'll be a hard book to find in
a decade or so. Pricewise, it's tough now and probably
the only one worth salvaging out of the 4 self-condemned novels.
Although I'm kinda partial to Bethany's
Sin, I realize that, like with Abrams' 2008 film Cloverfield,
revealing the catch before you even set the hook destroys the
curiosity and bewilderment that's so exciting yet so fragile
in mystery stories like this.
Many books worse than these
have been published with subsequent print runs not renewed,
causing copies to become finite. Rarely is the demand ignored
by their creator, however.
Robert R. McCammon has displayed honest conduct with
his final word on these works. It is now up to the readers
to keep them alive.
How ‘bout it, gang? Any takers?
a narrower focus to just the vampire genre during this
Golden Era of Horror, look to my review of Charnas' The
Vampire Tapestry from 1980.
3. In case you've forgotten,
SOTL from 1991 was the third film in history to win a Grand
Slam--best actor, actress, director, screenplay, picture--on
Oscar night. No one's done it since.
5. There are many examples,
but I'll cite two: Stan Kubrick from The Shining to Dr.
Strangelove , or Danny Boyle from 28
Days Later to Slumdog Millionaire.
6. One is located
inside Anaheim's Disneyland and the other's in Santa
7. McCammon never
lived there. He visited LA one weekend and took
And thanks to www.robertmccammon.com for all the great cover art.
08/12/2009 by Larry Crawford