Internet, it’s time you and I had a talk.
We’ve had some good times. Haven’t we? Wine and song. Meth and hookers. Pterodactlyl porn and powdered tiger penis. Whatever. It’s been great. But — no, no, sit down, you need to hear this — it’s time for you to recognize that if this relationship is going to move forward, then we have to be on the same page.
You need to share in my love — some might say worship, veneration, even mad-minded froth-mouthed obsession — over Robert McCammon and his work.
Wuzza? You haven’t read any McCammon?
See, Internet? That’s what I’m talking about. It’s like you don’t even know me.
*wipes tears away*
Internet, you might think you know good writers. You might think you’re a good writer. Mmm. Ehhhhh. No. Not so much. Not until you’re tapped into McCammon Mania. Not until you’ve learned to love the McCammon. But! I’m here to help. I want to make you better! I want to improve you. Like a cyborg, but with more “words to read” and less “limbs replaced with icy circuitry.”
So, here’s what’s gonna happen. I’m going to give you a reading list. And if you love me, you’re going to read all the books found on this reading list.
Every last word.
Relax. It won’t hurt. It’ll feel good. Your eyeface and brainscape will thank me.
What I’ve done — and this is a lot of work on my behalf, so I’ll expect you to send me gratitude in the form of cash prizes and other free shit — is placed all of Robert McCammon’s books in order of Big Awesome to Less Awesome (But Still Awesome). Okay? That’s it. Just go down the list as if you’re following the bouncing ball, and you’ll be good to go.
1. Boy’s Life
Every writer has a small list of those books. Not books that made you want to be a writer, but rather, books that told you you had to be a writer. This is one of those books for me. It’s a book about being a boy, about racism, and best of all (for me), about storytelling. McCammon started out writing horror, but over time he started to segue away from out-and-out horror and into mystery, and this is a great pivot point for that transformation. To learn about the corpse in the lake, the boy Cory must uncover the secret of the green feather — but moving deeper into that mystery is moving deeper into a very bad place. It’s a great example of how to see how a knot is tied you must first unravel the knot. You will read this book or I will punch you in the throat. That’s a serious threat, Internet. You know I love you, though.
2. Swan Song
Sure, yes, mm-hmm, Stephen King’s The Stand is great. I won’t deny you that. But it’s a distant second place to this bad-ass novel of the nuclear apocalypse. This book scared the poop out of my body and then the poop became animate and tried to eat me and digest me and then poop me out of its body. The Man with the Scarlet Eye? The Job’s Mask? Severing limbs? Cockroaches in the sink? Sister Creep? Paw-Paw? The Straitjacket Game? Gott im Himmel. Just thinking about this book makes me want to go back and re-read it. Hope thrives in a world blasted by nuclear winter. It’s horrifying. It’s hopeful. It’s awesome. Oh, it’s also like, 900 pages or something. I have one of the few hardback copies of this book in existence: a signed, numbered and illustrated copy. Every nerd has his nerd possessions, the rare few Objects of Geek Obsession that he would risk life and limb to protect. I don’t have many anymore, but remains one of ’em for me.
This is McCammon’s most recent novel (Mister Slaughter comes out in January, 2010, though I am very fortunate to have an ARC of it, and I’ll be sure to post my glowing review when I’m done with it), and it serves as a glorious return to form. See, what happened was this: McCammon was a horror writer for a long time, but over time he found himself wanting to tell different kinds of stories. No crime in that. Ah, but because the publishing world is rarely kind (and in many cases self-defeating), they basically told McCammon to shut up and keep writing horror, kay, thanks, bye. McCammon tried to break out, but couldn’t (and this sounds not unlike the way some recording artists try to break their contracts and continue making music they love), and ended up depressed and in what he called the “sunless realm.” He wrote an interesting letter about this experience that’s good for any writer to read. Anyway. Point is, he came back out of darkness and emerged with a new series set in pre-Revolutionary War America, with a young “detective” character named Matthew Corbett. Queen of Bedlam is the second novel in the series (the first is at #6), and was a rollicking, riotous, adventurous read. The hunt for a serial killer? The realities of early America? New York City seen in its formative stages? Mystery? Madness? Falcons tearing out eyes? Yes! Want an excerpt? Done. You can thank me later. Or now. Actually, just thank me now.
4. Wolf’s Hour
This will be an easy sell. Werewolves plus Nazis equals Awesome. Still not sold? Sheesh. Romance? Coming-of-age? Death train? Pulp sensibilities? This book drips with goodness. A super-fun adventure-spy-horror-historical beast. Let this beast clamp its ragged mouth on your neck and shake you till you’re dead.
5. Gone South
The writing in this is book is waaaay better than its position at #5 belies, but frankly, “werewolves fighting Nazis” just gets me all-a-giggly. Anyway. This right here, despite having been written in 1992, is a novel of the Now. Recession plays a big part, as do veterans from a ceaseless war (Viet Nam instead of Iraq). Plus, you get an Elvis impersonator named Pelvis Eisley, a fleshy unformed twin brother, cancer, and a man running from his past and into an uncertain future.
The start of the Matthew Corbett series, and the return of McCammon from that sunless realm. And what a return it is! “It had been a joyful day for frogs and mud hens.” (Excerpt!) Witchcraft, bears, the Carolina colony, ratcatchers… so, so good. The series doesn’t yet have its groove, though, the groove that will be set by Queen of Bedlam and Mister Slaughter. (Oh, and you might casually note that my Speaks the Nightbird review is linked to from the McCammon site, ahem, ahem.)
This a very strong psychological thriller, but McCammon calls it a “ghost story” where the ghosts are that of time and place — a whacked-out 60s radical (“Mary Terror”) kidnaps a woman’s child because she thinks it’s her own. It’s a powerful, lunatic paean to motherhood, and it’s a killer thriller throughout. But, really? The real reason to read? The bestest character ever. Earl Van Diver. Just… just trust me. You do trust me by now, don’t you, Internet? Put your faith in me. He’s a man of spare parts. He’s a man who should be dead. Read it.
This was the first McCammon I read, and it hooked me from day one. It showed me that I was reading someone whose work was above the caliber of, say, Koontz and King’s material at the time. Stinger’s just a fuckin’ weird-ass book, and it’s great. Horror sci-fi. Small town besieged by a shapeshifting alien menace known as “Stinger.” It’s a bounty-hunter in search of another alien… okay, it sounds stupid. And it kind of is? But it’s a blast. A gory, bizarre blast.
9. Mystery Walk
Indian spiritualism versus Deep South evangelism. Another pretty weird horror piece involving a shape-changing demon ghost. I should actually read this one again.
10. They Thirst
Setting this somewhat apocalyptic vampire novel in Los Angeles allowed McCammon to play with the brutality and vanity of these creatures, and I like to think he contributed very much to my ideas of What Makes Vampires Scary rather than What Makes Vampires Cool. I’m surprised this never ended up as a film. Actually, I’m surprised most of his work failed to end up on film. (It’s worth noting that McCammon “gets” vampires in a much scarier way in one of his short works, “Miracle Mile,” found in Under The Fang.) Oh, and if you want to see a horrible German cover of this book where it appears that Barack Obama is a fuzzy vampire bat, please click here.
11. Usher’s Passing
Another weird one, but a good one. Basically, imagine a continuation of the Usher family from Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” and you have this book. It’s worth it for the novelty; I can’t say it stands out in any overt, holy-shit way, but I still remember devouring it. It’s another I should probably re-read. Hell, I might just go through all these again. (Like I have the time. Good one, Wendig!)
12. Everything Else
His first three novels — Baal, Bethany’s Sin, and Night Boat — are good enough, but not so great that I demand you read them. You will be forgiven if you leave these off your list, Internet. We can still be friends. I do recommend any short fiction of his, whether it’s from the Blue World collection from other anthologies. (Heck, he wrote a great Batman story — “On a Beautiful Summer’s Day, He Was.”) In his masterful short work, McCammon’s covered zombies, werewolves, vampires, pulp action heroes, serial killers, yellowjackets, ghosts… I mean, the guy’s great. Really. So what the hell are you waiting for? Hey, you can even read some of this stuff online, for free. His zombie story, “Eat Me?” The incredible story of a past-his-prime pulp star, “Night Calls the Green Falcon?” Or OH MY GOD HORROR PENIS in “The Thang“…! You’ve got your work cut out, Internet. Don’t worry. I’ll wait. I’ll sit here quietly, hands steepled… while you get to work.