The Providence Rider, by Robert McCammon

(Providence Rider art by Vincent Chong)

Here’s how I know that I’m connecting with a book — or, if you prefer, a book is connecting with me:

When I lay down at night to read, the book will generally nibble away at my awakened state. It’s not that the book is boring. It’s just, reading all those little words on a the page or the screen leaves my lids heavy. I start to drift off, my mind shutting down one synapse after the other. After a half-hour or so, I know I’m done.

That’s true nine times out of ten.

But around, mmm, 10% of the time, I find a book so good, my eyelids don’t get heavy. They go the other way. Hell, they get jacked up like the awning outside a double-wide meth-lab. And that’s what happened when I picked up a copy of McCammon’s newest, The Providence Rider. Now, to be very clear about all this, I’m a sucker for anything McCammon writes. I’ve been reading this guy since I was a teenager. His novel, Swan Song, is one of the scariest I’ve read. Boy’s Life made me want to be a writer. I am, without reservation, his target audience. I’m just that way with some authors — Joe Lansdale’s another one. Or Bradley Denton. Or Robin Hobb. Whatever I read of theirs I know I’m going to like.

Now, McCammon’s last novel — The Five, his trippy rock-and-roll horror terror opus — was great, but it was a slow go for me in terms of reading. I felt like I needed to take my time with it, to move cautiously through it, to pick apart all the musical riffs and let the cold septic creep settle into my bones.

My experience with The Providence Rider was the opposite — fast, fun, and frankly, all kinds of fantastically fucked up. (Sorry for the alliteration. It is what it is. Let’s move on.)

The Providence Rider is next in McCammon’s Matthew Corbett series, a pre-Revolutionary War set of stories featuring the up-and-coming “problem solver” (think detective but with a far wider purview). Each book has been a different creature than the one before it, which is a bold choice for a series — the first book, Speaks the Nightbird, has Corbett investigating a supposed “witch” in the Carolinas. It’s something of a meditation on good and evil, faith versus science, a story at the moment the times and tides started to turn for this country in terms of enlightenment. The second book, Queen of Bedlam, is a raucous gallop of an adventure, a thick meaty book that takes Corbett to the early days of New York City and sees him accept a position the adventure-having, problem-seeking Herrald Agency. Then came Mister Slaughter, where Corbett’s story turns into a gruesome manhunt for the brutal slayer-of-men, Tyranthus Slaughter. It’s not exactly a horror novel — but it’s pretty damn close.

And now, The Providence Rider.

Beginning with Bedlam, Corbett’s been tangled up in the schemes of the imperator rex of the criminal underbelly, one “Professor Fell.” Fell has been a distant player for the last two books, his influence keenly felt while he himself remained an elusive faraway figure.

Providence Rider changes that.

Fell comes calling. Though he’s been trying to kill Matthew, he decides that he’ll stay his executioner’s hand if Matthew will come to his private Caribbean island and, during a gathering of Fell’s top lieutenants, help Fell solve a mystery. I’m not big on writing spoiler-heavy reviews, so I’ll just say this: the book is chock-a-block with action and adventure. Continuing on the tradition of doing something a bit different with each book, Providence Rider is Matthew Corbett in a far pulpier tale. We get explosions! Boat chases! Cannon fire! Fights galore! The evil Irish Thacker twins! The mysterious knife-throwing Minx Cutter! Impossible automatons! A lost Indian princess! A giant octopus! A global criminal conspiracy! An earthquake!

It’s got everything. Humor. Sex. Action. Adventure.

(And it’s also got one of the grisliest decapitation scenes in recent memory. McCammon really knows how to skeeve you out during scenes like this — whether it’s the hand-go-bye-bye scene in Swan Song or this page-long description of a head being sawed off at a formal function, his descriptions will squick you out.)

It’s an interesting approach, isn’t it? I think as authors we assume that readers want the same from us again and again — we’ve got this comfort zone in our heads and expect that readers want to remain herded up and huddled together in this safe place where they receive something approximating the same thing each time. But McCammon disproves that — or, at least, he disproves it for me, and given the fact that more of these books continue to reach shelves I have to hope that it’s paying off in terms of sales, too. But it goes back to what I said earlier in my “Don’t Get Burned By Branding” post — what readers will ideally respond to is your voice as a writer, not the genre in which you write. Every author brings with him certain things, be they themes, motifs, character archetypes, unanswered questions, grisly scenes of limb dismemberment, whatever. The reader, in this weird way, wants to carry the author’s baggage — but that doesn’t mean the reader requires the same reiteration of story or genre.  You don’t read McCammon — or Lansdale, or someone like Cherie Priest — and expect the same old recycled pap every time. What you can expect is a quality of writing and a another visit with those elements the author holds dear.

The Providence Rider was just what the doctor ordered. We have an infant in the house so it’s hard to carve out as much time for reading — and when I do, I don’t necessarily want something heavy. This book did the trick. It’s lean, mean, and wild-eyed — a Caribbean adventure with buckled-swashes and pulp-soaked goodness. I had a blast reading it, and I suspect so will you.

If you haven’t read any in the Matthew Corbett series, I might recommend jumping right in with Queen of Bedlam — then go back and read Speaks the Nightbird after the others as kind of a “prequel.”

The Providence Rider drops in May.

You can pre-order direct from the fine feathered folks at Subterranean Press (click here).

Needless to say, looking forward to the next Matthew Corbett adventure.

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