Robert McCammon – A Biographical Essay
Published in Supernatural Fiction Writers
Robert R. McCammon
Richard Bleiler and
Between 1978 and 1993 Robert McCammon published an even dozen novels and one collection of short stories, almost all of which contained overtly fantastic and horrific elements. This number is small indeed when compared to the output of such contemporaries as Charles Grant, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz, but it nonetheless distinguished McCammon as a consistently gifted and able writer, albeit one whose early works showed an occasional inability to create strong characters and who tended occasionally to sentimentality. Nevertheless, because McCammon’s technique improved with each book, his later works—in particular Boy’s Life (1991) and Gone South (1993)—are essentially unclassifiable, blending elements from forms and genres as disparate as the bildungsroman, magical realism, southern gothic, historical novel, and social commentary. In 1993, at what would appear to be the peak of his skills, he retired from writing, citing variously depression, exhaustion from overwork, a desire to spend more time with his family, and frustration with publishers, who insisted he limit himself to writing genre horror fiction when he wanted to explore other literary forms. This self-imposed retreat concluded in 2002, when a small press announced that it would be publishing Speaks the Nightbird, a historical novel written in the early 1990s, but it remains uncertain whether McCammon will ever resume writing.
Robert Rick McCammon was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on 17 July 1952, the son of Jack (a musician) and Barbara Bundy McCammon. The marriage failed, and McCammon was raised by his grandparents in Birmingham. He received a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Alabama in 1974, and currently resides in Birmingham. Despite this strong association with the South, its history and traditions played little substantial role in his early work. Nevertheless, paralleling his development as a writer has been an apparent acceptance of his southern heritage, and the last two novels he produced before his self-imposed hiatus—Boy’s Life and Gone South—are both set in the Deep South and make use of its heritage and traditions. Furthermore, McCammon’s works often contain references and asides that cannot be fully appreciated unless one is familiar with Birmingham. The vampire leader Count Vulkan of They Thirst (1981), for example, was named for the cast iron statue of Vulcan set on the Red Mountains on the Birmingham/Homewood border.
Following graduation, McCammon wrote advertising copy for Birmingham businesses and newspapers. Failing to get his short stories into print, he wrote Baal (1978), an ambitious effort having as its basis the biblical Book of Revelations and the ultimate conflict between limited Good and limitless Evil. In the afterword to the 1988 edition of Baal, McCammon stated that “Baal is about power, written at a time when I had none,” adding that “you always hear this said to young writers, ‘write about what you know.’ I wanted to write about things I didn’t know, so I consciously set Baal in locations as far from the South as possible: Boston, the Middle East, and Greenland. I wanted a global scale and a story that would take the reader to the very edge of Armageddon.”
Baal begins in New York City, when Mary Kate Raines is raped by a being that leaves burns where it touched her. She gives birth to a child, Jeffrey Harper, which destroys the lives of the Raines. After Mary Kate kills her husband, the boy is sent to an orphanage, where he matures with uncommon rapidity, develops unpleasant powers, and prefers to be called Baal. He flees the orphanage with his followers and, ultimately, emerges in Kuwait. There he meets elderly theology professor James Virga, who has left Boston to discover the whereabouts and fate of his young colleague Donald Naughton, who went to Kuwait to study Baal’s sect. Virga rapidly realizes that though Baal is human in shape, he is absolutely evil in intent and is determined to dominate and destroy the world. Virga is powerless to stop Baal and would perish but for the appearance of Michael, a laconic stranger with obvious powers of his own. Michael and Virga follow Baal across the wastes of Greenland and do battle with Baal, an epic confrontation that ends on a deliberately ambiguous note. Baal and Michael have vanished, locked in titanic and inconclusive struggle, and Virga is about to be rescued, but are those rescuing him Baal’s disciples?
McCammon’s second published novel was actually his third novel. He had followed Baal with The Night Boat (1980), but the publisher decided that The Night Boat might be too similar to a recently released motion picture called Shock Waves. McCammon thus wrote Bethany’s Sin (1980), after which the publisher decided to publish The Night Boat. Upon acceptance of the latter, McCammon decided to become a full-time writer.
Bethany’s Sin had its genesis in a Birmingham building McCammon used to pass on his way to work, “a rather forbidding-looking Gothic house with a simple sign out front. That sign said: WOMEN’S CLUB. Nothing else.” From observation of this club came the novel, whose premise involves a young couple moving to the small Pennsylvania town of Bethany’s Sin and gradually discovering it is a place with lethal secrets and mysteries. In this case, these involve the rebirth of Artemis, incarnate in the person of wealthy archaeologist Dr. Kathryn Drago. She leads a cult of lethal axe-wielding Amazons who at night ride about town killing townspeople as well as passing strangers. Thematically somewhat uninspired, and with debts to Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home (1973)—which likewise involves a lethal matriarchal cult in a small town—Bethany’s Sin is nevertheless interesting for a barely submerged subtext involving a fear of women. This is not to say that Bethany’s Sin is a misogynistic work. Rather, McCammon as novelist seemed to be grappling with the awareness that women are frequently outsiders, have their own identities, behaviors, and histories, and that sometimes these run contrary to the accepted and believed norm.
The Night Boat (1980) merges McCammon’s interests in World War II and its ordinance with a horrific plot. Set on the small Caribbean Island of Coquina, and focusing largely on the guilt-ridden David Moore—an expatriate banker whose sailing accident left his wife and child dead—it describes the horrors that emerge from a sunken German U-Boat, mysteriously intact after more than 35 years of submergence. The supernatural basis of the story involves a voodoo priest cursing the U-Boat’s crew to perpetual life in their submarine, and they have become flesh-eating zombies. The supernatural story is less interesting than is the account of the ultimate redemption of Moore, and The Night Boat is slight, the least interesting of McCammon’s early novels.
McCammon followed the relatively disappointing The Night Boat with They Thirst (1981), a cheerful and sprawling exercise in grand guignol that sets classical vampires and their followers in contemporary Los Angeles. Much of the story takes place in the literal shadow of a ruined castle overlooking Hollywood: built by horror film actor Orlon Kronsteen, it has remained empty following the discovery of Kronsteen’s tortured and decapitated body. The inhabitants of Los Angeles—in particular police captain Andrew Palatazin, reporter Gayle Clarke, a sociopathic killer known as the Roach, young Tommy Chandler, actor Wes Richer and his psychic African girlfriend Solange—go about their daily lives without realizing that Castle Kronsteen is now the home of Count Conrad Vulkan, a 500 year old vampire, who is employing the vicious albino motorcyclist Kobra to assist him in his raids on humanity. (Kobra is also one of the people responsible for the death of Kronsteen.) They Thirst in part becomes a struggle between limited human good and seemingly limitless supernatural evil, with much of the action occurring during a supernaturally generated sandstorm. There are nevertheless numerous imaginative touches that make They Thirst more than a thematic repetition of McCammon’s earlier work. First, Vulkan is shown to be but a weakling in comparison to his diabolic mentor the Headmaster, and Vulkan’s pride and arrogance are ultimately the cause of his undoing. Next, They Thirst has a thread of black humor running through it, and it is one of the first novels to ask where an army of the undead would sleep: a significant portion of the early novel involves Palatazin’s attempting to discover why corpses have been exhumed and their coffins stolen. Finally, They Thirst shows that McCammon was capable of putting new twists into established stories, and the novel’s conclusion is not the defeat of Vulkan but the conclusion of the horrors humans visit on each other.
Mystery Walk (1983), McCammon’s fourth novel, was the first to be published in hardcover. It is a complex tale involving the maturation of two young men, each possessing supernatural powers. Billy Creekmore inherited his abilities from his Choctaw mother, and he uses his powers to heal and set spirits to rest. Wayne Falconer has essentially the same powers, but he uses his to raise money for his father’s fundamentalist Christian campaign. In addition to sharing psychic abilities, each healer shares a recurrent dream involving an eagle made from smoke battling a snake made of fire. The paths of the two intersect several times, and ultimately they become allies, battling a monstrous supernatural figure, the shape changer, that has directed their lives for its own purposes.
Mystery Walk is ambitious and makes good use of Native American folklore as well as showing the biases directed against Native Americans. It is also the first of McCammon’s works to make direct use of the American South: Creekmore and Falconer are from Alabama, and the scenes involving Alabama life and folkways are well-presented and convincing. An additional autobiographical element is present in the character of Creekmore, who is McCammon’s age. Several scenes in Mystery Walk were based on McCammon’s experiences as a child, including a tent revival, which was patterned after an actual revival that McCammon’s grandfather hosted on his farm.
Much of Usher’s Passing (1984) is set in the south, though in North Carolina rather than Alabama, and like its predecessor, it convincingly blends folklore, local color, and literary history to great effect. The premise of Usher’s Passing is that Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” was a fictionalization of some unfortunate events in the lives of the Ushers, and the story begins in New York in 1847, when Hudson Usher, Roderick’s brother, confronts a drink-sodden Poe and informs him that he resents Poe’s using his family in his stories. Roderick leaves, believing Poe will be forgotten, and the Usher family, already wealthy through its armament sales, grows even wealthier. When the story switches to the present, the Usher fortune is measured in billions, and Rix Usher is one of three Usher children returning to the ancestral mansion to see who will inherit their dying father’s fortune.
Although Rix’s discoveries and his maturation and acceptance of his heritage form the heart of the novel, the surrounding events and numerous subplots are also well described. Usherland, the estate, is dominated by the Lodge, a sentient treasure house whose walls are distressingly mobile and whose intentions are rarely friendly. Images of physical death and decay are pervasive: a monstrous black panther—Greediguts—roams the grounds, as does the child-stealing Pumpkin Man. A mysterious disease limited to the family, Usher’s Malady, affects the oldest Usher, immobilizing and destroying his physical body while sharpening his senses to preternatural acuteness.
An intriguing linkage may be made between Rix and McCammon, whose middle name (“Rick”) is phonetically similar. Rix’s history shares much with McCammon’s own life, including jobs writing ad copy and working on the staff of a B. Dalton bookstore. McCammon was raised by his grandparents, and, as with Rix, it was expected that McCammon would be the kind of person his grandparents wanted him to be: that he would go into the family furniture business and would continue to live in the house his grandparents owned, keeping things as they always had been. McCammon decided he had to live his life his own way, as did Rix.
McCammon followed Usher’s Passing with Swan Song (1987), his longest and most horrific novel to date. Like Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), its literary model, Swan Song follows the lives and actions of a diverse group of characters in a post-holocaust world. King used a super-flu to kill most of the world’s population, but he left buildings and civic infrastructure intact, and apart from the emergent supernatural elements, most of the problems faced by his characters are logistical: corpses must be removed, electricity must be restarted, and civil order must be maintained. McCammon went several steps further and destroyed his world with a limited nuclear war, and his characters face plagues, devastation, radiation injuries and sicknesses, declining food and fuel rations, nuclear winters, and of course, each other.
The Swan of Swan Song is Susan Wanda (Swan), a girl with psychic abilities. When the bombs strike, she is nine and accompanying her mother through Kansas. She meets Josh Hutchins, an enormous African-American wrestler living from paycheck to paycheck, and he becomes her protector in the devastated wasteland. As Josh and Swan travel from town to town, meeting occasional survivors, including the viciously insane Alvin Mangrim, other survivors also travel, their paths occasionally crossing: Sister Creep is a disturbed woman from Manhattan; 13 year old Roland Croninger, a survivor of a survivalist redoubt and a budding psychopath, is accompanied by the much decorated Colonel Macklin, whose honors are empty and whose memories are haunted by the Shadow Soldier, whose presence enabled him to stay alive at the expense of others.
The fantastic elements in Swan Song emerge after the bombs strip away civilization and reveal its underlying magic. Sister Creep finds a circlet of glass embedded with jewels; it is psychically sensitive, warns her of danger, and permits her to watch the slow progress of Josh and Swan. This circlet is sought by a red-eyed being who wants to destroy it, for with its destruction all beauty and hope will end. This being—a shape-shifter who calls himself Friend and who is anything but friendly—allies himself with Macklin and Croninger, who have survived to establish a horrific force, the ironically named Army of Excellence, whose purpose is to kill all who have any trace of disease caused by the nuclear war. (Equally ironically, Macklin and Croninger are both thoroughly diseased.)
Swan Song is perhaps McCammon’s most controversial novel, though the controversy is not so much over the subject matter as it is in the novel’s technique. Certainly the book is overlong and has some weakly drawn characterizations and a weakly portrayed romance. At the same time, it has an enormous number of characters whose actions are always interesting, much convincing detail, and great strokes of imagination. Furthermore, McCammon is able to depict something as mundane as the passing of a horse with great conviction, and the positive far outweighs the negative. Swan Song tied with Stephen King’s Misery for the 1988 Bram Stoker Award for outstanding achievement in horror and dark fantasy and was the first of McCammon’s books to be a New York Times best-seller.
Stinger (1988) is science fiction, albeit with a dark sensibility, that tells the tale of a small, dying town in Texas called Inferno and how its inhabitants, at war with each other, react to the arrival of an alien named Daufin — and an alien bounty hunter called Stinger, who is chasing Daufin. The book, which reads like a horror movie from the 1950s, is over 500 pages long but the action occurs during one 24-hour period. (Many readers were not aware of the time span until they neared the end of the book and read about the sun rising again.) Like its predecessor, Stinger sold nearly a million copies and again made McCammon a New York Times best-seller.
Stinger was followed by The Wolf’s Hour (1989), an odd work featuring a werewolf as protagonist whose action occurs primarily during World War II. Though werewolves are traditionally supernatural beings, McCammon provides a rationale for their existence, and change involves concentration, effort, and stress rather than a full moon. Furthermore, McCammon’s werewolves are guided by human consciousness rather than bloodlust, and when Michael Gallatin—the protagonist—is first introduced, it is as a wolf, attacking the Germans in North Africa, demoralizing them and stealing their battle plans. He is later recruited by the Allies to discover the meaning of the term Iron Fist, a grueling quest that has him pursued by Nazis through occupied Europe and Nazi Germany. The novel is well-researched and frequently horrific, and it succeeds well in conveying McCammon’s interest in World War II with his fondness for James Bond novels. Nevertheless, the work suffers from the same problems that beset all historical fiction: the outcome of the past is not in question, so from the very first the reader knows that the quest must have succeeded.
Mine (1990) also makes use of historical events, but its use of the past is to reveal contemporary motivations. The novel has as its premise the idea that the 1960s radical group the Weathermen spawned an even more radical group, the Storm Front. The Storm Front was led by Jack Gardiner, who preferred to be called Lord Jack, and just beneath him in the hierarchy was the enormous and thoroughly psychotic Mary Terrell, who enforced Jack’s whims and was generally and aptly referred to as Mary Terror. The group’s end came in 1972, in a shootout with the police and the FBI, but Mary Terror survived, and since then she has held a string of low paying jobs, moved frequently, and become obsessed with babies. (She was pregnant during the shootout but lost the child.) Her path intersects with wealthy Atlanta suburbanite Laura Clayborne, approximately the same age but whose life has moved in relatively conventional circles, though she is haunted by nightmares. Clayborne is heavily pregnant as the story starts and has just discovered that her husband Doug is having an affair. She is thus on her own when Mary, disguised as a nurse, steals her baby in order to present it to Lord Jack.
The story of Mine is of course the pursuit of Mary Terrell, with Clayborne and the FBI attempting to discover her whereabouts, and Mary attempting to reunite the Storm Front and locate Lord Jack. Clayborne locates the few surviving members of the Storm Front and interviews them, and ultimately the paths of the two women cross, the climax occurring in the old house in California in which the Storm Front used to hold its meetings. During the course of the novel identities become blurred and realigned: Mary has become more maternal, for she has cared for and genuinely loves the baby, and Clayborne has lost her conventionality and, in her quest for her stolen child, has become obsessive and determined. Mine won the 1991 Bram Stoker award for best novel.
Also in 1990 McCammon published Blue World, his only collection of short stories to date. Most of the thirteen stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, and they are some of McCammon’s best work. “Yellowjacket Summer” describes a young mother and her two children stopping in a small Georgia town, only to discover that it is ruled by a psychotic boy who can control yellowjackets. “He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” is also set in the South and shows that everything has a price; being unaware of the cost does not save one from having to pay. “Makeup” involves a thief stealing the makeup case that belonged to horror film star Orlon Kronsteen (of They Thirst): he soon discovers that the makeup converts him into genuine monsters. “Doom City,” “I Scream Man,” and “Something Passed By” are thematically similar, nightmarish descriptions of domestic situations. “Night Calls the Green Falcon” pays homage to pulp magazines and the adventure serials of the 1940s and 1950s and concludes that the contemporary world still has room for masked crime-solving heroes. “Nightcrawlers” features a drained and breaking Vietnam vet whose ability to project hallucinations and desires leads to a foregone yet chilling conclusion. “Makeup” and “Nightcrawlers” are the only works of McCammon’s to have been filmed. “Makeup” was adapted for the TV show Darkroom in 1981, and “Nightcrawlers” appeared in 1985 as an episode of “The Twilight Zone” directed by William Friedkin. The “Makeup” adaptation starred Billy Crystal and Brian Dennehy and was played more for laughs than horror, while “Nightcrawlers” is generally regarded as one of, if not the, best of the new “Twilight Zone” shows.
With Boy’s Life (1991), McCammon not only accepted his southern heritage but used it as the basis for the story. The novel begins in 1964, in the small Alabama town of Zephyr, and is narrated by 12 year-old Cory Mackenson. He states at the beginning that “we had a dark queen who was one hundred and six years old. We had a gunfighter who saved the life of Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral. We had a monster in the river, and a secret in the lake. We had a ghost that haunted the road behind the wheel of a black dragster with flames on the hood. We had a Gabriel and a Lucifer, and a rebel that rose from the dead. We had an alien invader, a boy with a perfect arm, and we had a dinosaur loose on Merchants Street. It was a magic place.” It is the last sentence that gives some idea of the novel’s complexity and depth, for the volume recreates the essence of an imaginative childhood in the days before widespread television. It is a time when magical events could happen and when the impossible might reasonably occur.
Boy’s Life is nevertheless substantially more than Mackenson’s sentimental recollections. The story itself begins and climaxes with the events surrounding a brutal murder—the secret in the lake—and during the course of the novel the old South also begins to die, its customs vanishing and the survivors scrambling to stay alive. Mackenson several times witnesses the passing of power: the horrible Blaylock family is defeated in a battle reminiscent of the climactic gunfight in High Noon; the bullying Gordo and Gotha Branlin are defeated when the abused learn to fight back; and the worst aspects of the old South—the white racists—are defeated by the best of the new South. Mackenson witnesses the passing of a close friend and—on a more charming note—a triceratops in a seedy carnival (brought back by Professor Challenger of Doyle’s The Lost World ) realizes it does not need to put up with abuse and escapes to take up residence in a nearby lake and attack cars and buses if they pass too close to its territory. In addition to acknowledging Doyle, McCammon pays homage to dozens of his favorite writers and media figures, including Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Eudora Welty, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Gene Autry, and Roger Corman. The book won the 1992 Bram Stoker Award and the 1992 World Fantasy Award for best novel.
The last novel published before McCammon’s long hiatus was Gone South (1993), a book that is the diametric opposite of Boy’s Life. The prose in Boy’s Life was rich, dense and evocative; Gone South is spare, almost terse, as it recounts the actions of a series of characters. The focus of the story is Dan Lambert, a carpenter who has developed a brain tumor and leukemia from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. While requesting an extension on a loan, he inadvertently shoots the bank’s loan officer, and he goes South, a term combining elements of running away, going insane, and being dead. While on the road he meets a disfigured young woman, Arden Halliday, who tells him of the Bright Girl, a beautiful, perpetually young woman who lives in the Louisiana swamps: Arden believes the Bright Girl will heal her. As Lambert is traveling and seeking salvation and redemption, two grotesque bounty hunters trail him: Flint Murtaugh carries his blind, mute, and retarded undeveloped twin Clint embedded in his abdomen, and Cecil “Pelvis” Eisley, a fat Elvis Presley impersonator carries around an asthmatic little bulldog named Mama. An ambiguously happy ending is ultimately reached.
Though it is stylistically somewhat pallid in comparison to Boy’s Life, Gone South is nevertheless a success as a novel. It is tempting to identify Lambert with McCammon and to see Lambert’s quest as a fictional expression of McCammon’s need to find something in which to believe and somebody to love, as well as an expression of a wish to live his days in privacy while at the same time permitting his artistic side to reach maturity. Had McCammon’s career finished with Gone South, it would be an apt conclusion.
After Gone South, McCammon took time off to be a full-time father. When he resumed writing, he turned toward historical fiction and began Speaks the Nightbird, set in the Carolina Colony in 1699. The novel tells the story of Rachel, a woman accused of witchcraft in the new and struggling town of Fount Royal, and the magistrate’s assistant, Matthew, who begins to doubt the validity of the charges. Against the magistrate’s wishes, Matthew begins investigating the truths behind the eyewitness accounts of Rachel’s unholy dealings with the Devil and discovers that while there is Evil in Fount Royal, it is more man-made than unholy. McCammon spent over a year doing research for the book, including a trip to Williamsburg to study documents from the time period.
After finishing Speaks the Nightbird, McCammon encountered an editor who wanted to change the book from what it was to what McCammon felt was more along the lines of a Harlequin romance novel. After trying to work things out with the editor, McCammon found that other publishers weren’t interested, for the book wasn’t what they expected a “McCammon novel” to be. McCammon eventually pulled the book from consideration and started work on The Village, a novel set in WWII about a Russian theatrical troupe, whose job it was to entertain the Russian troops with government-approved plays depicting proper Russian views, that gets caught behind enemy lines in Germany. Writing The Village was an arduous task for McCammon, as he found himself “snakebit” after his editorial experience with Speaks the Nightbird, and he began to fear the possibility of more rejections. It should be noted that McCammon’s career began with the publication of his first novel. He had not really experienced rejection before in his career, and he found himself getting depressed. He overcame the depression, but it took him three years to finish The Village.
Upon completion of The Village, McCammon found that the publishing industry had changed radically in his six years away from it. Speaks the Nightbird and The Village were offered to publishers, but they didn’t believe that the American book-buying public would be interested in historical novels from McCammon, especially since one of the novels did not feature American characters. During the year the books were available, McCammon found he enjoyed life without worrying about deadlines and publisher demands, and in 1999, he announced his retirement from publishing and began enjoying life with his family, catching up on all the things he never had time to do while he was writing.
Fortunately for McCammon’s fans, an employee of River City Publishing, a small publisher in Montgomery, AL, had heard McCammon read from Speaks the Nightbird at a local college in the mid-1990s and approached him about publishing the book. McCammon liked the idea, and Speaks the Nightbird is set for publication in September 2002. However, as of this writing, McCammon sees this as simply the publication of a book and not a return to writing and publishing. It is likely that The Village will never be published though, like the endings of all of McCammon’s novels, the future remains open, with untold possibilities for what lies ahead.
This essay originally appeared in Supernatural Fiction Writers, edited by Richard Bleiler and published by Scribner’s in 2002. It is reprinted here with the permission of the authors and the publisher.