The Five, By Robert McCammon

THE FIVE is Robert McCammon’s messiest, strangest work of fiction.

That may not sound like a good thing.

You’d be wrong.

See, this is a novel about the last days of a hardscrabble indie rock band — the titular “The Five” — and the horror they endure at the hands of a schizo sniper, a horror that ultimately brings them together before properly setting them apart. Contained within the story is this ghostly vein of the supernatural, a delicate component of good versus evil that never shows its full face, that always remains hidden in the margins of shadow that McCammon paints.

So, when I say “messy” and “strange,” I mean it in the truest rock-and-roll sense. Think if you will of the The White Stripes. Or The Doors. Or Jimi Hendrix. Or late Beatles. Or Sleater-Kinney. Or any garage band playing music that isn’t about perfection but about what lies beyond and within each note — the messy thump of a bass drum, the fuzz of a grinding guitar, the trippy vertigo strains of an organ. We’re not talking the measured bleeps and blips of pop music: we’re talking about the unkempt margins of rock-and-motherfucking-roll, son.

I don’t know how McCammon does it, but both the story and the execution of that story mimic that kind of garage band rock. It’s loose and messy, it deviates from expected courses, it escalates just when you think it’s going to ease off and eases off just when you think it’s going to escalate, it’s trippy and slippery. Above all else, it offers a kind of genius from a storyteller who has in my mind achieved a mode of transcendence — here, then, is McCammon as storytelling Bodhisattva, staying around this crass publishing arena to show the rest of his what it’s like to write from the heart and make it count.

Another way of thinking about it is by talking about James Joyce. Weird, I know, but bear with me: if you read Joyce’s work, his fiction doesn’t become more buttoned-up — it gets bigger, broader, more personal, and certainly weirder. Even comparing PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN with ULYSSES is a fascinating exercise: the first fairly lean, the second similar but with a far greater storyworld. ULYSSES shows Joyce beyond the top of his game — he’s climbed the ladder, gotten to the top, and kicked it down behind him — and reveals an ultimate expression of the novel. He’s not afraid to deviate, either. He wanders down alleys you didn’t even know where there, with Leopold Bloom as our vehicle through the mundane chaos, the heroic normalcy of an everyman’s day.

(Let’s not talk about FINNEGAN’S WAKE right now.)

THE FIVE is McCammon’s ULYSSES.

That’s a wacky statement. I know. But I think it’s true. This tale of “The Five” — Nomad, Ariel, Mike, Terry, and Berke — takes those same trips down dark alleys, concerning itself less with a mechanical thriller-slash-horror plot and more with the nature of these characters and the power and madness of rock-n’-roll in this day and age. This is actually marketed as a horror novel, and… it is, I guess, but only barely. That’s not to say it’s not scary. It’s rough stuff at times. But again the supernatural component, while present, is barely there — a stroke of subtlety rather than overt paranormality.

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t sure about the book for the first… 20, 30 pages. But then you slip into the vibe of it and it reveals itself. Soon your heart’s thumping like a kick-drum.

If I had one complaint it’s that early on McCammon seemed more interested in describing the technical beats of the music as it played — problematic for a guy like me who has the musical inclination of a cantaloupe. (Confession: I once played the drums. Second confession: I probably wasn’t very good.) But eventually he moves away from that and describes the music in cleaner, more poetic beats — paving the way to let you know how the music’s supposed to feel rather than the rote mechanics of how it’s played. It conjures to mind that this is a novel with the potential for transmedia extensions, if only in the form of us getting to hear the music of “The Five.”

Anyway. Point being, I recommend it. Two drumsticks thrust up and twirling. It’s a powerful, profound, trippy novel that’s troubling and unsettling throughout. This isn’t like anything else McCammon has ever done — again, it’s far fuzzier at the margins. But Stephen King was right to call it “full of rock and roll energy.” It isn’t McCammon’s easiest read. But, ULYSSES isn’t an easy read, either. Even still, both novels are some of the best of the form.

The caveat applies here that McCammon is easily my foremost “totem spirit” in terms of writers who influenced me. The guy’s one of my literary heroes and it’s nice to see him not just working, but at the top of his game. I’m looking cuh-razy forward to THE PROVIDENCE RIDER and whatever horror novel he’s got after that. (I still need to see if I can get my hands on his new WOLF’S HOUR stories, though. Dangit.)

All right, cats and kittens.

Your turn.

Recommend a book.

And go read THE FIVE while you’re at it.

36 comments

  • I think music may be the next big thing in horror. I’ve bee reading a lot of rock and roll stories lately.

    As for a book recommendation, SEEDby Ania Ahlborn is fantastic, disturbing and original.

  • I am going to go with The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It’s an often overlooked SF book that revolves around a first contact on an alien planet gone horribly wrong. It is a complete page turner from beginning to end and yet I am always finding people who have never even heard of it.

  • “the messy thump of a bass drum, the fuzz of a grinding guitar, the trippy vertigo strains of an organ. We’re not talking the measured bleeps and blips of pop music: we’re talking about the unkempt margins of rock-and-motherfucking-roll, son.” – Great line. Can’t wait to read this, help cleanse the pallet after reading the pale vanilla “Visit from the Good Squid, um, Squad.”

    A book you should be reading? “Beautiful Naked & Dead” hell I should know, I wrote the bitch.

  • Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World is a hell of a book. It’s not exactly rock ‘n roll messy, but it is a great steaming, fizzing, crazy cauldron of genre, and ideas, and wordplay, and completely gripping storytelling. Ninjas! Pirates! Spec ops! Armageddon! Astonishing. And it’s his first novel, dammit.

    I second The Sparrow, also. A very different reading experience, but an excellent one.

    • For a different but no less awesome rock-and-roll vibe, I recommend BUDDY HOLLY IS ALIVE AND WELL ON GANYMEDE, by Bradley Denton.

      Great, great book.

      Trying to think of other rock novels worth looking at…

      — c.

  • The Five sounds like a great read, Chuck. Horror and rock-n-roll go hand in hand. In that vein, Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (with a character who resembles, of course, Scott Ian) was a great read.

    But if I’m gonna tout the man who defined horror for me, shaped my style, I need to give credit to the legend: Richard Laymon. If anyone hasn’t read The Traveling Vampire Show, well, get on with it…you won’t be sorry.

  • Kind of hard to give recs without knowing what you’re in the mood for, you know. :-p

    Anyone, I’ve already gushed at you re: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Sounds like the anti-McCammon in this case (I don’t know, I haven’t picked up Swan Song yet (but rest assured it is nestled in my Kindle and awaiting the right cozy weekend)). Writing is crisp and clear and just a delight to read.

    Or, if you’re into the whole rock music at the end of the world type vibe, pick up The Last Days by Scott Westerfeld. Full disclosure – I haven’t read it yet, but Westerfeld has never done me wrong. You may want to read Peeps first, however. While it’s not a direct prequel, they do exist in the same story universe and it may provide good context. Long story short, an army of vampires (scientific parasite ’caused vamps) has been raised to combat an ancient evil that’s turning folks into zombies.

    Or, if you just want unnerving, creepy, skin crawl in a cerebral way, I’m going to pitch Unwind by Neal Shusterman at you again (because I’m here to fill everyone’s life with the best YA lit). If the idea that parents can have their children retroactively aborted as teens (a process that harvests all their body parts and uses them in transplants) while keeping them alive doesn’t get under your skin, I don’t know what will.

  • A Confederacy of Dunces was certainly unkempt, but funny as hell. It wasn’t scary, unlesss you consider that the author committed suicide several years before his mother more or less forced publication of the work.

    Ulysses made me scratch my head. I could see the brilliance here and there, but perhaps I didn’t care enough for the MC to follow his meandering.

  • Comfort Food by Kitty Thomas is so deceptively easy to read, that you don’t even notice the mind-fuckery until it’s too late. Erotica, by the way.

  • Coming out next week is Diana Rowland’s “My Life as a White Trash Zombie.” It was an awesome read. Her other series is a lot stronger with the police procedural, this one leans more towards life through the eyes of a Reluctant Morgue Tech who keeps her job for easy access to brains.

    She twists up the zombie mythology to make for a zombie protagonist you can get behind and give a damn about. That, the world-building and the plotting make it an excellent read. (Although there is not a rock-n-roll theme in it.) ;)

    July 5th release date, kids.

  • Man, all the good ones have been recced. I definitely agree a million percent on “The Sparrow” and it is my Go-To Rec when people ask for faves.

    High Fidelity for more music hi-jinks.

    A group of people being messed with and a talk of artistic craft. Chuck Palahniuk’s “Haunted” will have freak your shit!

    • @Stephen:

      You shall be forgiven. Provided you rectify this right now. Go on. Go ahead. We’ll wait.

      *tap tap tap*

      You don’t mind if we sit here and watch, right?

      *tap tap tap*

      With this shotgun?

      — c.

  • I’m going a bit off the beaten path here, but your reference to Joyce has me thinking of classic works. I am currently reading THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (best title ever) by Carson McCullers.

    It is an astounding creation.

  • The opposite of rock and roll, but everyone should read Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence. Forget the risible movie ‘The Seeker’, if indeed you even heard of it. Go read the books. Eerie, mystic, hauntingly beautiful, mythical… the best rendition of the soul of the British mystery tradition that you’ll ever find.

  • My go-to bible is:

    The Talisman -Stephen King & Peter Straub

    A 12-year-old boy, determined to save his mother’s life, travels our world & the world that lies beside it. Alternate universes with alternate versions of the people he knows, the people he fears, and the people he’ll have to beat to survive and win the talisman.

    This book that made me wish I was a writer and then showed me I wasn’t.

    • In the “horses for courses” category, would you believe I’ve never been able to sit through THE TALISMAN? I’ve tried like, five times.

      Had the same problem with the GUNSLINGER, but then one day, it clinched. Loved it.

      — c.

  • My go-to bible is:

    The Talisman -Stephen King & Peter Straub

    A 12-year-old boy, determined to save his mother’s life, travels our world & the world that lies beside it. Alternate universes with alternate versions of the people he knows, the people he fears, and the people he’ll have to beat to survive and win the talisman.

    I borrowed this book from my high school library and it’s been with me ever since. And that’s how come library fines are so stiff and the librarians give everyone the fish-eye and I do not care!
    Whew! I feel better..

    This book that made me wish I was a writer and then showed me I wasn’t.

  • This line, “This is actually marketed as a horror novel, and… it is, I guess, but only barely,” immediately put me in mind of a book I absolutely LOVED from last year:

    _Beat the Reaper_, by Josh Bazell (http://www.amazon.com/Beat-Reaper-Josh-Bazell-Author/dp/B002XTZKH4/)

    Beat the Reaper is about an ER doc whose mob past catches up with him over the course of one very long, very strange, day. It is dark, gritty, wildly entertaining every step of the way, and at the same time completely hilarious.

    Oh, and there’s a shark tank. I’m not even kidding about that. How can you go wrong with a shark tank?

  • Oh yeah, and while I’m at it, in the “not exactly horror but kind of reads that way” is _The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death_, by Charlie Huston. You ever wonder what happens _after_ the neighbors discover the corpse that has been rotting for three weeks in the adjacent apartment? Or _after_ someone offs themselves with a pipe-bomb up the backside? Ever wonder who cleans up the mess?

    Charlie Huston did, and wrote a hell of a novel out of it.

    Very dark. Great storyline. Some of the funniest goddamn dialogue you’ll ever read, which is a good thing, because man this book needs some funny to take the edge off. From a craft perspective, this one is also a great example of how to write a book with an unlikeable protagonist and still pull it off. Because the protagonist in this book is a total dick. I mean, he’s just a real asshole. But in a pretty hilarious kind of way. You have to read it to see what I mean, but it’s a pretty impressive feat to make the protag that kind of smeghead and still get away with it.

    My only complaint about this book at all is that Huston decided he was fucking e.e. cummings or something and that he was too good for regular quotation marks around his dialogue. And somehow his publisher let him get away with that shit. Which irritates me, because a) the net result was that at times it was hard to track the otherwise excellent dialogue in the conversations, and b) we have a perfectly good set of dialogue formatting conventions which exist for the very purpose of making it EASY to track the flow of dialogue! So use them, asshole!

    But then, what do I expect from a book whose protagonist is such an asshole himself?

    • @Jason:

      I read Huston’s first vampire novel and loved it.

      But his habit with the quotation marks drives me up a wall. It actually stopped me from getting into MYSTIC ARTS, but I’ll have to try again.

      — c.

  • Yeah, I was hugely irritated to discover the no-quotes thing there on page 1 or whatever, and I was tempted to stop. But I had already bought the book, so I kept going. Glad I did. It’s worth wading through enough of it so you can get into the groove of the dialogue. Because the dialogue really is excellent. The protagonist, in particular, has this utterly jaw-dropping inability to know when to just shut the fuck up for his own good. Had I been counting the instances where I thought to myself “I can’t believe you just said that!”, well, I don’t know what the number would have been but it woudl have been a lot.

    No vampires, though. For me that was a plus, but YMMV…

    At any rate, if you like Huston, give Josh Bazell a try too. Pretty sure it won’t disappoint.

  • If anyone here hasn’t read T.H. White’s The Once And Future King, you’re missing out, says I.

    Which is sort of like telling a film club that you really like The Godfather, but there you go.

  • Classic. Dark, twisty, turny quest for continued survival and a place to call home without ever losing track of the foreign yet plausible culture of. . . .rabbits. Yeah, those rabbits tell a dark story. Watership Down.

  • I know it is not a “book” per say, but to read Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan around election time always scares the shit out of me. (Particularly the last election if you place Bush as the part of the Beast and Obama as the Smiler. Read it and you’ll see what I mean.) Again not a book book, but Brian Wood’s DMZ series seems more like a realistic vision of the soon to be future than anything. Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis is also quite an enjoyable gutter ride through the underbelly of Hell and leaves you with that fresh feeling of needing a steam your skin off shower that will never get you clean enough after you read the book. I also love devouring the flash fiction in rpg books. Particularly when it comes from White Wolf’s World of Darkness. So I’m sure some of what I read is our dear Chuckie’s stuff. Stephen King’s It is the only book to ever scare the living crap out of me and yet it was The Green Mile when it came in it’s original novella format that made me want to write. Again not a book but The Walking Dead is my go to zombie bible. The interaction between the characters as they rely on each other to survive is phenomenal. And last but not least while I didn’t consider scary Tick Tock by Dean Koontz was an awesome roller coaster ride. Ok i know I need to shut up now, but I can’t leave before I forget to mention Neil Gaiman is just awesome in his skill as a storyteller. And if you love to see a masochistic MC have the ever loving crap kicked out of him at every turn the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher is a must read. The fucker just refuses to die. . . . . Catch you all on the darkside of the bearded one. >pumps fist in the air and fades out to black<

  • I’m broke as a Grecian banker right now, so I’ve been rereading the Hannibal series. Great page turning stuff, but I think Demme’s movie Clarice Starling was more interesting. Also, I’ve been reading about the 1848 revolutions, a timely subject with the Arab Spring ruffling tents.

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