Mister Slaughter, by Robert McCammon: A Review
Mister Slaughter proves that nicely. Though, “nicely” is perhaps the wrong word for a book soaked in brutality and blood.
But we’ll get to that.
If you’re not familiar, Robert McCammon left the writing world for a while, but returned a handful of years back with Speaks the Nightbird, but you can read more about that in an earlier post of mine (“Robert McCammon Will Rock Your Effing Eyeface“). After Speaks the Nightbird came the truly excellent (and meaty!) Queen of Bedlam. The first, Nightbird, was in many ways a different novel than what we’re getting now in the series — it’s a slower, more ponderous read, concerned with the threshold between supernatural and reasonable thinking.
That book gave us a character, however: Matthew Corbett. In that book, Corbett is a judicial clerk working the trial of an accused witch in the Carolina colony.
That changes in Bedlam, when Corbett finds a variant course for his life: as a detective and “solver of problems” for the mysterious Herrald Agency along with hulking cohort Hudson Greathouse. Here, the series dips into a more Sherlock Holmes-ain vibe — a welcome shift from Nightbird, honestly. While the series still maintains its moral questions and still gives us a world in transition (this is before the Revolutionary War, mind), it captures a faster pace, and makes the mysteries come fast and furious as Corbett and Greathouse must navigate the echelons of New York City to uncover the truth about a serial killer known as “The Masker.”
Fast-forward, and here we are with Mister Slaughter.
Holy shit, it’s good. In fact, I haven’t enjoyed a book like this in years.
Listen, when I do reviews, I don’t like to speak overmuch about the plot. Each page offers surprises big and small, and I hesitate to turn you away from discovering too many of these moments for yourself. That’s your journey. Still, you need some nuggets, so here goes.
Corbett and Greathouse are tasked with the escort of a prisoner from an asylum in Pennsylvania (seen at the end of Queen of Bedlam) back to New York City. Seems easy enough. The patient-slash-prisoner, however, is a mad brute by the name of Tyranthus Slaughter, and as always, McCammon weaves an elegant and economical portrait in short order:
“He had a big barrel chest and shoulders that swelled his ashen-hued asylum clothing, yes, but his arms and legs appeared to be almost spindly. He was about the same height as Matthew, yet he stood in a crook-backed stance that testified to some malformation of the spine. His hands, however, were instruments worthy of special attention: they were abnormally large, the fingers long and knuckles knotty, the nails black with encrusted grime and grown out jagged and sharp as little blades. [...] But for all that, Slaughter had a long, aristocratic nose with a narrow bridge and nostrils that flared ever so elegantly, as if he could not stand the stink of his own skin.”
Of course, the escorting doesn’t… go so well — would we expect otherwise? Corbett and Greathouse make a choice — a bad choice, a choice we know to be the wrong one (see my earlier post on the crafting of suspense, if you care), and the rest of the book is devoted to how Corbett cleans up the mess and madness born from this ill-advised decision.
Corbett must pursue Slaughter and bring him to justice.
This is a Herculean — or, perhaps, a Sisyphean — task.
He pursues this serial killer through woods and town and city, with each step on this journey ever more torturous (and tortuous, really, for plot could be said to thicken).
Make no mistake: this is McCammon flirting more boldly with his horror roots. Slaughter is a monster. The things he does in this book are unflinchingly dark. While he initially comes off as genial and almost comical, his actions betray that facade. Listen, I’m kind of a fucked-up guy. Most things meant to get a reaction out of me don’t. But the way Slaughter torments and murders the innocents he encounters will drain the blood from your face (and, apparently, spatter that blood all over the pages of this book). I can think of two instances where my jaw was left hanging open on my chest, and I had to tell my wife why I was staring slack-mouthed at a distant point. McCammon punches low, and punches hard. It’s only made more effective the way that McCammon masterfully builds tension and strings together language that is equal parts plain-spoken and lyrical.
Slaughter is a compelling character, of course — oh, how we love our monsters. McCammon gives us one of the best, and for me, a Top 10 Villain (and Top 5 Serial Killer, right up there with Hannibal Lecter):
“Thank you for allowing me some practice.” Slaughter was leaning over the edge, a dark shape without a face. “Get the rust out of my joints. I appreciate knowing that my judgment of human nature has not been impaired during my time away from the pleasures this world has to offer. So good day, sirs, and may you rot in the deepest pit of Hell set aside for men who think themselves so very smart.” He offered a faceless bow, then drew away from the well…
But, really, it’s Corbett’s arc that impresses. He begins as something of a preening peacock; fresh from the celebrity status granted to him due to the events that unfolded in Bedlam, Slaughter’s quote above really speaks very well to who Corbett believes himself to be: smart, valuable, perhaps a little precious. But Corbett is dragged through the mud. He’s almost killed on… maybe three different occasions in the book? Four? He’s bloody. Battered. And he’s left morally wounded, if not mortally so, by how his own character frailties allowed a monster like Slaughter to cause such damage to the world in such short order.
My only concern throughout the novel was a feeling that McCammon did such a powerful job establishing a dynamic world in the New York City of Bedlam, and moreover helped put larger plots in motion that did not see conclusion, that when those plots failed to manifest throughout the large middle of this book, I wondered — would we have to wait to see any continuation of what had come before? Was he leaving us hanging? Would those plots ever manifest?
Bzzt. Patience, patience. McCammon takes the third act of Slaughter and ties it all together. He carried the ball forward. The story progresses, and carries Corbett along with it.
Even better, what he shows us with certainty is that this is by no means the last book in the series. That is, for me, the best news of all. McCammon is not only fully back in the game, but has given us characters and stories that will continue on. I can’t lie; I hunger to read more. (You’d also do yourself a favor and read McCammon’s closing epilogue, in which he discusses the challenges of historical authenticity versus fact, and how to navigate that authenticity to bring a good tale to life. Writers in particular could learn a lot from McCammon.) When I read that McCammon was getting out of the writing game, I grew depressed. Not that I’d hung my hopes on publication to him; but, if the woes of the industry could bring down a legend such as him, what would it do to a wriggling grub such as myself? So, with McCammon back in full form, I feel only energized by the promise and power of good writing, and how that good writing will eventually find its audience.
So, do you trust me?
Like mystery? Horror? Compelling moral quandaries? Excellent characters? Heart-crushing tension?
Then do me a favor.
Read this series. I’d forgive you if you skipped Speaks the Nightbird and went right to Queen of Bedlam. In fact, do that. Mister Slaughter hits shelves in January, which means you have plenty of time to read Bedlam before it drops. Bedlam’s pretty cheap right now at Amazon, actually…
Thanks to Subterranean Press for the ARC, by the way.