Thursday, February 07, 2008

Man of Mystery, Part I

He is a writer who helped get me through my difficult teenage years and altered my perspective on the world as it was then; he continues to have the same affect on me with his latest work. His fiction, in my opinion, provides remarkable insight into the madness we call life. As a person, he is enigmatic, modest, and deeply private. Yet he also sits among the very best authors of mystery and horror novels working today.

He is Robert McCammon.

Beginning with this post, and in three more to come, I shall look back with pleasure over the 56-year-old McCammon’s lengthy career and try to understand why his work continues to strike a resonant chord in so many readers. Along the way, I’ll speak with McCammon’s old friend and Web master, Hunter Goatley (who, with McCammon’s wife, Sally, was invaluable in making all of this happen); review the author’s remarkable historical thriller The Queen of Bedlam (released late last year); and, in a rare interview, talk with McCammon himself about his latest novel, his nighttime writing routine, his debts to Sherlock Holmes, and his long-ago departure from the horror genre. It was hard persuading American author McCammon to talk about his life and work, but his insights are valuable to readers of both mystery and horror fiction. And conducting our interview gave me the opportunity to thank him personally for the enjoyment his work has given me over the last three decades.

So, without further ado, let us begin.

* * *

Do you recall the very first Internet search you ever did? Well, I do. It was in the summer of 1997. My younger brother had recommended that I try the search engine AltaVista, and as I stared at the page’s search box, I wondered what to inquire about.

Then I remembered that I’d been wondering for several years what had happened to award-winning novelist Robert McCammon. So I typed his name into the search box and found a Web site at the top of the results entitled Lights Out!, which took its name from a line in McCammon’s novel Swan Song (winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel of 1987). I soon crawled all the way through this amazing Web resource, which was obviously a huge labor of love. I spent hours at the site, as I was then still on a dial-up connection (weren’t we all in the 1990s?). There was so much I learned about McCammon’s work from Lights Out!, because in those early Internet day there were only print magazines and fanzines writing much about him. McCammon, despite having sold a great number of books around the world, was rarely interviewed, so I knew very little about this man on whose fiction I had spent so much hard-earned cash.

The Web site, I learned, was an extension of the unofficial Robert McCammon newsletter, Lights Out!, published between 1989 and 1991. Having myself been involved in fanzine work during the late 1970s and ’80s, I e-mailed the Web master, Hunter Goatley. Soon, a long-distance friendship developed between he and I. We traded rare editions of McCammon’s books and e-mailed each other with McCammon news, as we were (and still are) both avid collectors of his work. But most importantly, Goatley kept my passion for McCammon’s writing alive (as he has apparently done for many other followers of this author). Goatley’s dedication to and enthusiasm for McCammon’s work at the short-lived Light’s Out! fanzine (back issues are available here in PDF format) and Web site were crucial during the period between 1993 to 2002, when McCammon “retired” from publishing. Interest in his fiction, however--even during that prolonged hiatus--has never waned, because once you read one of his novels, you’re hooked. It’s as simple as that.

Now, let’s go back a bit. When did my passion for Robert McCammon’s work begin? As I wrote on this page in the fall of 2006, when I had the opportunity to meet Stephen King, I was always an avid reader and was very fond of all things Gothic during the horror genre boom in the late 1970s. I was such an avid reader, that I would hunt through secondhand bookstores (remember them?) to feed my habit, balancing carefully my very tight budget. I guess people were amused seeing me hang out at the library with my big satchel, carting books to and fro and telling people about the books I’d read.

Christmas came early for me, as a teenager in December 1979, when I purchased a paperback copy of McCammon’s debut novel, Baal (1978), with its scary green British cover (at right). It was an angry and disturbing book, and McCammon’s prose made me stand to attention. Like some of his later writing, it dealt with apocalyptic issues, be they person or global; but in the case of Baal, both sorts of apocalypse were offered. I still remember the hairs on the back of neck bristling when I read that book, realizing that it was no pulpy creature feature. No, because hidden between McCammon’s early paragraphs was genuine insight. And isn’t that really what we read books for--insight, and seeing how others view human existence?

McCammon wrote in 1988 about his experiences in producing Baal:
Baal is about power, written at a time when I had none. I was twenty-five years old when I wrote Baal, and working at a department store in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. My job was ferrying advertising proofs between the local newspaper and the various department heads: “traffic control,” they called it. When I went home at night, I sat down at my old Royal typewriter---long since deceased---and worked on the novel that would become Baal.

People often ask me where I get my ideas for characters. I always say that each character, whether male or female, is put together from observation, memory, and is part of the author too. I really believe there’s part of me in all my characters---and not only the good ones. The character of Baal---with his unleashed wild power and his ability to do just about anything he pleases---is certainly part of what I was feeling at that time in my life. I was an electric plug and I couldn’t seem to find the right socket, until I began writing.
After so enjoying Baal, I waited for its follow-up. And waited some more. In that pre-Internet era, there was scant information available to the general public about when and what books were due to be published. I finally got friendly with a local librarian, who checked catalogues for me and ordered me books by writers I enjoyed. It wasn’t until 1980 that I finally got my hands on McCammon’s second published novel, Bethany’s Sin, a cautionary tale of small-town evil (and, might I note, a painful read for males--if you’ve experienced it, you know what I mean). I devoured that very haunting yarn in a single sitting. (Only many years later did I learn that thriller writer Simon Kernick [Severed] also counts Bethany’s Sin as one of his favorite horror novels of all time.)

It was only a year later that The Night Boat (written right after Baal, but published third in order) found its way into bookstores in the UK. The Night Boat was a classic horror tale about a submerged U-boat, complete with an evil presence left aboard from World War II--one far more sinister than Nazism alone. McCammon wrote about this work in a preface to the 1998 paperback re-issue of The Night Boat:
I am also fascinated by machines. Particularly ships and submarines. I can imagine nothing more grim than to be two hundred feet underwater in a leaking, moldering submarine. They didn’t call them Iron Coffins for nothing, and it took iron-willed men to survive in them. Most of the German submarine crews didn’t.

The Night Boat is a mixture of dream and nightmare. A dream in that the location, the colors, the language are idyllic; nightmarish because the Night Boat invades the dream and destroys it. I took scuba-diving lessons in researching The Night Boat, but I wasn’t able to afford a trip to the Caribbean. It amazes me still that a review I got for the book went to lengths to say how accurate the reviewer thought I’d gotten the cadences of island language. I listened to many hours of calypso music and spoken Caribbean dialect records.

Events and impressions in an author’s everyday life are always mirrored in the work he or she is doing at the time. While I was writing The Night Boat, I lived in a cramped little roachhole of an apartment on Birmingham’s Southside. Honestly, I could hear the roaches running wild in the ceiling over my bed as I tried to sleep. And my upstairs neighbors played their stereo at an ungodly volume all hours of the night, so round about two or three in the morning you could hear the other neighbors banging on their walls to get the music shut down. That weird, rhythmic hammering in the early hours remained with me and found its way into The Night Boat. When the crew hammers at the rotting hulk of the submarine, it’s actually irate neighbors at two o’clock in the morning trying to get Led Zeppelin silenced. The roaches in the ceiling I saved for another book.
Just a few months more passed before the paperback-original release of McCammon’s vampire opus, They Thirst (1981), set in contemporary Los Angeles. This was a contrast to Stephen King’s vampire opus, Salem’s Lot (1975), which was set in small-town America. McCammon wrote later about why he set his tale of modern vampires under the big lights of California’s largest city:
It has always interested me that from time to time I meet someone who has read They Thirst and lives in Los Angeles. They usually want to know how long I lived there, because certainly I had to be a native of L.A. to get all those streets and landmarks correct. The truth is that I visited Los Angeles for an intensive weekend of research. I trundled off in my rented car on the freeways, maps in hand, and went to every location that I’d already decided needed to be in the book. It was my first trip to Los Angeles, I was there alone, and I was staying in a Hispanic hotel in downtown L.A. that supposedly had been a mecca for stars back in the 1920s. At least that’s what the guidebook said. Valentino had a suite there. I fear he wouldn’t recognize the place now.

But I spent most of my time like a real native--on the road. And while I was in Los Angeles, I read a magazine article about runaways that seemed to me to hit the heart of the atmosphere I was after.

A young girl who’d run away from her home in the Midwest was talking to the reporter, telling him where she lived. It was a shuttered-up motel near the Strip, she said. She and her friends crashed in the rooms on an upper floor. They had mattresses to sleep on, and they panhandled on the Strip for drug money. It was okay. Like another society, just different. But, she said, she and her friends didn’t have anything to do with the men who lived down in the motel’s basement. She couldn’t understand how anybody could live like those men did, down in that place with no light. She said they did ... terrible things. But hey, live and let live, right?
After that, readers received the first hints of McCammon’s Southern Gothic heritage--two books, Mystery Walk (1983) and Usher’s Passing (1985) that were released in paperback in Britain a year after their hardcover publication. McCammon’s introduction to that latter novel tells of his own reading influences.
When I was a child, one of my favorite tales was Edgar Allan Poe’s “[The] Fall of the House of Usher.” I could see Roderick roaming the gloomy halls of the ancestral mansion, could see his sister Madeline rising from the family vault, could see the fissure that finally cracked the house as it collapsed beneath stormy waters.

But what if the story didn’t end there?

What if Roderick and Madeline had a brother who carried the Usher name into the future? What if the generations of Ushers created a business empire that not only changed American society but could destroy civilization as well?

And what if the present-day Usher descendant realizes that five generations of his family have concealed a secret so terrible that it long ago drove Roderick Usher to insanity, and so terrible that it now threatens to drag him down into the dark cauldron of the Usher heritage?

In Usher’s Passing, each generation has a tale to tell, and their stories move across time to lead Rix Usher into the haunted heart of Usherland, where he must face both who he is--and what he is.

Usher’s Passing grew out of love for both the craft of horror fiction and its master, Edgar Allan Poe. I hope you too are drawn into the complex web of events Poe began.
McCammon’s links to the Southern Gothic literary tradition, and his love of Poe’s work, would show up again later and quite clearly in his Matthew Corbett novels.

As much as I’d enjoyed this novelist’s previous work, it was Swan Song (1987) that completely knocked my socks off. I had to wait a full year after its publication in America to get my hands on a copy, with its wonderfully surreal cover. That cover still haunts me today, as does McCammon’s narrative about the end of the world brought on by a nuclear weapons exchange. For all the nightmares this book caused, it also made me view life from a completely different perspective. The plot revolves around the madness that ensues when a dark force intervenes with humanity, triggering events that result in the launching of nuclear missiles. The result of this violence is a Mad Max-like world beset by radiation poisoning, rampant disease, warfare, black skies, and gangs of marauding mutants. Groups of survivors are left to negotiate hell on Earth--or maybe hell of an Earth. There were scenes of brutality, scenes that make the heart pound, and scenes that brought me to tears. Swan Song is a huge book in terms of ambition, ideas, and compassion, all suffused with a deep anger toward humanity. Yet right at the story’s core is what we all need to have when facing disaster: hope.

This novel has often been compared with Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), but primarily because King’s work also details an apocalyptic event (in his case, a flu virus) that decimates mankind, and he then goes on to describe how the human survivors cope in the new world order. I can see how writing a book such as Swan Song--plus the comparisons, in many cases negative, to his fellow writer King--took a toll on McCammon’s mind. In a 1989 essay for Mystery Scene magazine, he had much to say about his many difficulties in composing that particular novel:
For me, writing is a great freedom. I don’t use an outline. I don’t usually know what’s going to happen from one point to another, though I develop what I call “signpost scenes” as a kind of free-form roadmap. Writing is a great adventure, a journey of faith into the unknown. Sometimes it’s a night trip, and you lose your way for a while. But when you get to your destination, and see the home fires burning, the joy is beyond description.

I almost gave it up, a while back. I got really tired of hearing things like “the poor man’s Stephen King,” and that I was “walking on King and [Peter] Straub’s territory,” that I was a rip-off artist and a hack with no style of my own. I almost said to hell with it, and for a while I was looking through the want ads trying to figure what else I could do.

When I reached the bottom of that particular pond, I realized there was nothing else I could do besides write. For better or worse, I was married to writing, and I had to keep going no matter what was shoveled at me.
I’m only glad he didn’t give, because Robert McCammon still had so much more to offer as a novelist.

(To be continued)


Anonymous said...

Fantastic stuff. Can't wait to read the rest. McCammon is an absolutely fantastic writer and I have loved every one of his novels. Boy's Life is still the book I would most like to emulate one day - it contains everything a great novel should. He truly is a master of the written word.
Grant McKenzie

How far would you go to save the ones you love?

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Craig Clarke said...

Great stuff. I'm looking forward to reading more.