Corn on Macabre – An Appreciation of Robert McCammon

Good horror, like good love, is hard to find. And as we hurl toward Halloween the hunger for heinous haints hooks the heart like Pinhead’s chains. But where can you get that ferocious fix in these trite and troubled times? Lord knows the movie morlocks at Netflix and Amazon have double-dipped a well that’s bone dry. And Trump Derangement Syndrome finished the job on Stephen King that that poorly piloted Astro Van started all those years ago. Sure, there is always the joy of returning to old favorites but sooner or later even they start to feel like old flames – warm enough to get you through the night, but God knows the thrill is gone. In such a state there’s nothing left but to seek out those coveted hidden gems. And folks, have I got a righteous ruby for you in the form of Robert McCammon.

Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Robert Rick McCammon brings a heaping helping of the Southern Gothic tradition to his grisly and cinematic works. A slowly building dread, a lurking unknowable, and a dangerous landscape riddled with lost secrets, vile deeds, and unforgettable characters are just some of the hallmarks of his books. His prose is flavorful, though not overly stylized, with rich but brief descriptions that paint a palpable picture, and only ever slightly indulge when it comes to the sex and violence. I guess the best compliment I could give Robert McCammon is that he is a reader’s writer – and the writer who made ME a reader.

I was twelve when his work came into my life. Not yet the Wolfman, though already I was loved by the Moon. My mother could see the signs. A little dreamy and moody for my own good, I was getting into fights at school and becoming more withdrawn. She intervened when she handed me a book and said, “I think you would really love this. It’s about a boy a lot like you.” The book was Boy’s Life (1991). I had read a few books at this point – The Hobbit, Cycle of the Werewolf, Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy – but it had not been habit forming. I was too restless. And the look of this book was not encouraging. It was a hardback with no dust jacket – just blue and blank with gold foil lettering for the title. It looked like a hymnal. But soon enough I cracked it open and soon enough I was drawn headlong into McCammon’s marvelous machinations.

I was truly transported. More so than any of the books I’d read previous, it captured and captivated my adolescent attention. That’s partly because no one puts you in a time and place like Robert McCammon. Your nostrils burn with the smell of filling station fumes. You can feel the cold crunch of autumn leaves underneath your feet. You can see the congealing blood on the dirty linoleum floor through sweat-stung eyes. And there’s his knack for nailing the details. Never overwrought like Robert Jordan who gives you three and a half pages on the embroidery in the Queen’s curtains. It’s the old coffee can as a pencil holder at the temp agency. The faded yellow foam spilling out of the seams of a pu leather chair. The way a fella rubs the back of his neck with his right hand every time he’s uncertain. Like Baby Bear’s bed, it’s juuuuuust riiiiiiight.

Boy’s Life, however, is not a horror novel. I would later learn that it was McCammon’s first non-horror novel, arguably his greatest novel, and one of the few novels that I would go on to recommend to anyone without reservation or asterisk. Not horror, but it centers around a gruesome murder in a small town. That murder is the backdrop of a coming of age story with no shortage of intrigue, danger, magic, and heart. When I completed the book I knew I needed more. I walked to the horror section of the nearest Books-A-Million and found an entire shelf lined with Robert McCammon’s complete works at the time, all with matching Pocket Press Books covers. Sweeping across their enticing spines with my hungry eyes, one book in particular caught my attention – The Wolf’s Hour (1989).

Oh pleeeeease let it be what I think it is. I do not remember a beginning to my fascination with werewolves – no moment of conception. It was always with me. On the day I was born, the wolfmen waited for me. I snatched the book off the shelf and ravenously read the synopsis.

Jackpot.

The Wolf’s Hour follows the adventures of Michael Gallatin – a Russian born, English spy for the Allies during WW2. Soldier, spy, werewolf. It’s a werewolf novel, a war novel, and a spy novel in one bitchin package of riveting action, savage violence, and with not one, not two, not three, but FOUR of the most explicitly wrought sex scenes I’ve ever come across in fiction or literature. Say one thing about Robert McCammon – say he gives the reader what he WANTS! And this was back when a brand new paperback ran you $6.99. Talk about your money’s worth. Needless to say, I DEVOURED The Wolf’s Hour. It was a window into the forbidden – a view of things to come.

For the next several years my life was dominated by two obsessions – McCammon and Megadeth. It was a pairing I would not fully appreciate until years later once I realized that Robert McCammon was indeed the Megadeth to Stephen King’s Metallica. In literary circles McCammon has always been considered a peer of King, Koontz, and Lansdale. But in all my years I’ve only ever encountered TWO other people who knew of him without my introduction, and they were both high school teachers. Of course, this added to my enjoyment of his books. It felt like he was my own. Like somewhere on a Gothic estate in the black forests of Alabama there was this sorcerer of storytelling putting pen to paper just for me. That sort of thing means the world to you when you’re thirteen – haunted, horny, and hateful. I still remember Swan Song (1987) – McCammon’s answer to Stephen King’s The Stand. And the conflicted thrill I got while lying on a girl’s bed (a girl one year older than me with the body of a Playboy cover model), listening to Megadeth’s Eye of the Tornado on my Sony Discman, my hand’s gripping the nearly thousand-page post-apocalyptic novel as the President of the United States and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are all annihilated in a nuclear blast in the first fifty pages. BLOW ME AWAY!

That’s all well and good, Wolfman, you might be thinking. But I don’t give much damn for werewolves, the post-apocalypse, or life-changing coming of age stories filled to the brim with sweet, Southern Gothic phantasmagoria. I’m a VAMPIRE GAL.”

Well pardon me all over, madam. If you burn for bloodsuckers then you’ll torch for They Thirst (1981). Imagine the vampire movie that John Carpenter never made, put it in book form, and you’ve got They Thirst.

Or if you’re a fan of HBO’s CARNIVALE then Mystery Walk (1983) is just right for you. It’s the tale of two young men – one a half-injun loner who can see death before it happens, the other a rich man’s son who can heal the sick and wounded with the touch of his hand – and their separate journeys bringing them closer to conflict with each other and with the evil force that stalks them.

Or hell, maybe what you REALLY want is to see the good folks of Inferno, Texas band together to stop an evil alien bounty-hunter who’s tearing ass through their nice desert town. If that’s the case then you want to check out Stinger (1988).

Or if you’re an old-fashioned sort then maybe you’d like to return to Poe’s House of Usher and mine the modern malevolence of that cursed Carolina bloodline. Usher’s Passing (1984) is calling your name!

Now I won’t lie to you, not all of his books are home runs. His first novel, Baal (1978) is better than his second book, Bethany’s Sin (1980). And both of them are much better than his third novel, The Night Boat (1980). But They Thirst to Gone South (1992) are all BANGERS worthy of your money and time.

From 1978 to 1992 Robert McCammon wrote twelve novels and one book of short stories. The last two novels of that batch – Boy’s Life and Gone South – marked a departure from traditional horror to his own brand of bizarre, violent, heartfelt thriller. A genre I like to call Corn on Macabre. It’s a bold and beautiful experiment in style. It is at once sensitive and savage. Vulnerable and violent. It is an exploration of the wounded hearts and twisted souls of the forgotten folks of “flyover” country. And unlike many of his peers who habitually paint the rich as wicked, Robert McCammon is all too eager to weave the wicked wants and depraved desires of the underclass.

McCammon had his excellent run and then he disappeared. He didn’t pull a full Johnny Favorite and go missing, but he didn’t publish a single word for ten years. And I was fortunate because it was in that ten-year hiatus that I was getting caught up with the work that made his reputation. Then in 2002 he came back with a bonafide bang with Speaks the Nightbird.

The story follows Matthew Corbett, a young clerk for a Colonial Magistrate, and the witch trial that they are called to preside over in the Carolinas in 1699. It’s everything I loved about McCammon and more. It is a spooky and unnerving tale filled with fascinating and loathsome characters. It is devilishly dark and tantalizingly twisted. I can’t recommend it enough.

Speaks the Nightbird marked a new beginning for McCammon. It not only solidified his more personalized and unique genre, but it kicked off the Matthew Corbett Series. At seven books and counting it follows the further adventures of Matthew Corbett who, following the events of Speaks the Nightbird, leaves the Magistrate’s office and becomes a professional “problem solver” for the mysterious Herald Agency. And with the help of brawny brawler and swashbuckler, Hudson Greathouse (think Liam Neeson as Brom Bones), Matthew navigates a shadowy underworld of ghoulish villains, Luciferian schemes, and heart-stopping action. It’s Tin Tin meets The Legend of Sleepy Hollow but with a hell of a lot more murder, mayhem, sex, and gore. I’m currently one book behind but I dig it like a ditch.

Regardless of what genre or subject matter he’s tackling, however, part of what makes McCammon so much fun to read is the cinematic quality of his writing. It’s the specificity of characters, the distinctiveness of sequences. They’re so singular and iconic that I don’t know if it’s a tragedy or a blessing that none of his books were ever adapted for the big screen.

I’m talking about Black Frankenstein – the washed up professional wrestler protagonist of Swan Song – fighting his way though a supermarket that’s been turned into a maze of death by a band of wasteland maniacs.

I’m talking about Kobra – the homicidal albino biker – leading his gang through the desert and butchering innocents for fun along the way, in search of the shadowy voice that is calling him West to Los Angeles in They Thirst.

I’m talking about Flint and Clint from Gone South – brothers and freakshow attractions who moonlight as bounty hunters. Flint, a gaunt and humorless man who dresses in all black. Clint, his conjoined twin – little more than a stunted arm and ear protruding from Flint’s torso, but handy with a derringer in a fix.

I’m talking about the Devil himself, who makes appearances in several forms in several books, though McCammon has the decency to never explicitly name him so. He’s the Headmaster in They Thirst, the Shapechanger in Mystery Walk, and the Man with the Scarlet Eye in Swan Song.

I’m talking about a police station being overrun by a swarm of flesh-eating cockroaches. I’m talking about a train converted into a Dante’s Inferno-style obstacle course of death. I’m talking about an aging television star who dons the cape and cowl of his signature character to catch a killer of women! Do you see? DO YOU SEE?!

I’ve been a McCammon Man for over two decades now. But it was only three years ago that I finally revisited the book that started it all. I’d been living in Los Angles for seven years and had been drunk for five of them. I’d wrecked friendships, blown opportunities, and found myself more wretched and withdrawn than ever before. And just like the first time, Boy’s Life seemed to lift the scale from my eyes and purify the poison in my werewolf heart. It was the final nail in a series of signs and signals that inspired me to cut my cad habits and ditch the Shitty of Angels and return to the warmth and mystery of the land that shaped me.

Take the McCammon pill. Issues with publishers over the years have made his books more scarce on the shelves than they once were, but this is the age of the internet. You have no excuse. You can follow in my footsteps and start with Boy’s Life. Or maybe you’ve got a hankering for historical fiction and would rather begin your journey with Speaks the Nightbird. Or maybe you don’t want to commit to a novel. Then you can start with Blue World, his short fiction collection. But pick your poison, open wide, and scrape off a mouthful of Robert McCammon’s Corn on Macabre!

Detective Wolfman has only BEGUN to howl.