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  • TITLE: The Condemned Novels
  • AUTHOR: Robert R. McCammon
  • PUBLICATION YEAR: 1978-1981
  • AWARDS: None
  • WEBSITE:www.robertmccammon.com/
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    THE SELF-CONDEMNED NOVELS OF ROBERT McCAMMON

     

     

    Robert R. McCammon rode out of the horror tsunami of the 80s, obviously led by King—Carrie, 1974—with 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 with Baal in 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 1978, Bethany's 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.

    MAJOR UPDATE

    as of 01/25/2011

    According to a news release by Subterranean 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 Life of 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.

    But 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 know—cerebral 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 metaphors alone.

    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.

    --p.31

     

    Oh brother.

     

    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 Sin:

     

    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.

    --p.307

     

    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 genres.(5) I mean, okay, they're all films like this is all horror, and he's dropping a bomb in each category. Baal is Demon. Bethany's Sin is Possession. The Night Boat is Zombies/Haunted House. They Thirst—the one after this—Vampires.

    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 everytime.

    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 Garton's Live 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 ring.

    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 formulaic, ex-‘Nam 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).

    Apexing this 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 Neverlands(6). With 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 altering.

    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?

     

     

    1. For 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.

    2. http://www.robertmccammon.com

    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.

    4. http://www.robertmccammon.com

    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 Barbara.

    7. McCammon never lived there. He visited LA one weekend and took notes.

    And thanks to www.robertmccammon.com for all the great cover art.

     

    © copyright 08/12/2009 by Larry Crawford

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