Sunday, February 17, 2008

Man of Mystery, Part III

(Previous installments of Ali Karim’s appreciation of American author Robert McCammon can be found here.)

By 1988, when I finally got my hands on a copy of Robert McCammon’s award-winning end-of-the-world thriller, Swan Song, I was thoroughly hooked on his brand of fiction. And I was near desperate for more. His eighth novel, Stinger (1988), did not disappoint. Its tale of warring aliens trapping a Texas town in their fight fused elements of H.P. Lovecraft with science-fiction traditions to great affect. Though not as disturbing as Swan Song, Stinger still made the reader question his or her value system.

Then, close on the heels of Stinger’s cosmic horror came McCammon’s take on werewolf legends, in The Wolf’s Hour, a neo-classical horror tragedy wrapped inside a gonzo World War II yarn. I just loved this book as a rollicking great adventure, but it also featured a tragic perspective on life and the meaning of humanity. The story, about a Russian émigré and retired Allied Intelligence agent whose ability to transform himself into a werewolf will come in handy as he seeks information behind enemy lines, might sound a bit ... well, nutty, but trust me when I say that The Wolf’s Hour is a fantastic excursion into action. I just loved it, and you can see the influence of Ian Fleming in the narrative.

In 1989, McCammon wrote an article for Mystery Scene magazine about how he came upon the idea for The Wolf’s Hour:
I began The Wolf’s Hour with the idea that I wanted to do a different kind of werewolf story, coupled with elements of romance and heroism. I wanted my werewolf to be a man who often enjoys being a creature who runs on all fours, with a keen sense of smell and vision. Sometimes, Michael Gallatin would much rather be a wolf than a human being.

I also wanted to do away with some of the conventions of the werewolf tale. I didn’t see any need for werewolves to be restricted to the full moon in order to change, nor did it necessarily have to be night. I wanted to create creatures who had struggled to take control of their situation rather than being at the mercy of their circumstances. Which is not to say that a werewolf’s life is easy; as one of the characters says, “A werewolf never dies of old age.”

As much as possible, I wanted to try to make the development and life of these creatures as believable as possible. Which meant they would learn to endure extreme hardship, because how else could they live but in a wilderness environment? But I think there would be great joy in learning how to see the world as a wolf does, in learning---and it wouldn’t be easy---how to run on all fours and use your tail as a rudder, how to hunt prey and kill it with your teeth and claws, and generally survive on a level that is at the same time both brutal and elegant.

The merging of brutality and elegance is what I was trying to accomplish, and I hope it succeeded reasonably well. The Wolf’s Hour is set during World War II, and goes back and forth in time to show how Michael Gallatin became a werewolf and also follows his current mission in occupied France as a British secret agent. I’ve been asked why I chose World War II as my time frame, and not the modern era. My answer is that the period of the second World War appears to be---wrongly or rightly---a very romantic time in the history of the world. Romantic, that is, in the sense that one knew who wore the black hats and who wore the white hats. It was a period of apocalyptic decisions and events, and more surely the pivotal period of the twentieth century. It seemed right for The Wolf’s Hour, which is basically the tale of nature versus technology.

I also grew up reading the Ian Fleming James Bond novels, and I wanted to create a character who loved life yet had no qualms about killing if the situation demanded it. Michael Gallatin is not a man who kills for pleasure, but he is certainly a dangerous man because he knows---like the wolf does---that killing is basic to his survival. I also wanted Michael Gallatin to be a compassionate man, in that his work and the nature of killing is not his entire focus for being. He is a professional at his craft, but he’s certainly not a machine and I wanted him to have very human emotions.
As I’ve also experienced with F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep (1981), I just love it when Nazis get their butts kicked by the paranormal; and looking at the retail sales of this micro-genre (Supernatural Nazi-Bashing Adventure), I guess I’m not alone.

By the end of the 1980s, I found myself more and more often visiting London specialty bookshops, such as Forbidden Planet. And I became aware that McCammon was publishing many short stories, in addition to his novels. As you might expect, I started collecting horror-fiction anthologies, searching for McCammon’s short-fiction. One of my favorites was “Nightcrawlers,” which was originally published in 1984 and subsequently adapted for broadcast as part of the revived Twilight Zone series.

In 1989, McCammon finally saw published a collection of his short fiction, Blue World, that won many award nominations and was particularly appealing because of its title novella, which is probably this work’s most disturbing piece. McCammon went on from there to edit an anthology containing 17 short stories, entitled Under the Fang (1991), for the newly formed Horror Writers of America (HWA, now the Horror Writers Association). The stories built around the theme of vampires taking over our world.

I heard at the time of Under the Fang’s release that McCammon had been instrumental in setting up the HWA. Writer-critic Stanley Wiater recalls its formation in a piece on the HWA Web site.
As with most great ideas, the concept for a horror writers association originated in the fevered imagination of one individual--in this instance, one Robert R. McCammon. In an interview with Publishers Weekly in 1984, the author (who had already published six horror novels) first publicly expressed his desire for a professional organization specifically geared to the needs of fellow writers of fear. At that point, however, his decidedly colorful name for the then nonexistent organization was “HOWL” (Horror/Occult Writers League.) Even so, reasoned McCammon, mystery writers had their professional organizations, as did science fiction writers. Wasn’t it past time that the equally honorable genre of terror, shock, and the supernatural be formally recognized?

Perhaps more than anyone, McCammon was himself shocked at the subsequent--and often sincere--interest from the media to his remarks, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. Then the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks chains wanted to know more. Horror writers began to hear the HOWL and wrote McCammon to ask where to sign up--though it had always been his intent to first survey every writer he could contact before ever making a formal announcement about the proposed organization. Nevertheless, McCammon was deluged with still more letters of support from writers, editors, and scholars both stateside and overseas ...

Before long, McCammon enlisted the support of two colleagues from Texas who were instrumental in bringing the concept of HOWL snarling into reality: author Joe R. Lansdale and his wife, Karen. They in turn sent out a formal letter of invitation to some 177 writers, of whom 88 subsequently responded with suggestions or a willingness to join.
Just a year after the publication of Under the Fang, two new novels by McCammon were released in Britain, both of them demonstrating a new direction to his writing and making an indelible mark on my psyche. Those works were of course Boy’s Life and Mine, and they spelled the end of his work in the horror genre--but didn’t he leave with a bang! Boy’s Life is probably one of the 10 most remarkable books I’ve ever read. When I got to the end, I actually wept because of the beauty of McCammon’s story and the sheer wonder of how he had constructed this tale of 1950s small-town America. I have recommended Boy’s Life many times over the years and bought copies as presents, and every recipient has come back to thank me for passing along this bewitching tale. At its heart, Boy’s Life is a coming-of-age yarn, but it’s also a mystery, suffused with a little magical-realism, and it packs a full-on emotional punch. In the introduction to Mine, McCammon wrote this about Boy’s Life:
I am probably prouder of Boy’s Life than of any book I’ve ever done. All books are like children, and every child has a different personality. Some are difficult, others companionable, some in a hurry to get where they want to be, others in no particular rush but just content to amble across the hills and meadows of a ripe young world. I hope Boy’s Life has captured some of that young world---a world we all remember, and often yearn to return to in our secret hearts if but for a moment to catch our breaths and right our gyroscopes against the hard iron of reality.

I say Boy’s Life is not about lost innocence, because I believe we all maintain the pool of innocence and wonder inside us no matter how far we get away from our childhood. I believe this pool can be revisited, and we can immerse ourselves in its healing water if we dare to take the risk of knowing again the children we used to be. This is a risky thing, because once we look back---once we let that wonderful pool take us in again---we may not ever fully return to being the adults we are now.
Boy’s Life went on to win both the 1991 Bram Stoker Award and as the 1992 World Fantasy Award. Yet it later generated controversy, when in 2006 a Florida school district questioned its appropriateness as reading material for students. As seems so often to be the case when cries for censorship are raised, the person making the complaint against this book hadn’t actually read it, but had simply found Boy’s Life listed on a Web site about banned books. That site emphasized “bad” language in McCammon’s novel. The author defended his work in person, saying it had been “misinterpreted,” and the school board ended up approving Boy’s Life as well as a number of other challenged works.

Compared with Boy’s Life, Mine--which won the 1990 Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel--was a much darker story and is relevant to today’s terrorism debates. Explaining the background of this novel, McCammon writes:
I sat down to write a ghost story. When I finished, I’d written MINE. Not exactly what I’d started out to do, and certainly not a ghost story in the traditional sense, but a ghost story all the same. MINE is the story of a past era, and a walking dead woman haunted by the specters of what used to be.

Mary Terror, a woman lost in time, yearns for the days of radical militancy and the underground presses, an era of black-light posters, roach clips, strawberry incense and psychedelic dreams. She remembers like the touch of an old lover the violence of those times---the clashes with “the pigs” on college campuses, the Weather Underground’s bombings, the rage of the Black Panthers, the cold calculations of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Her own angry band of brothers and sisters---the Storm Front---is long gone, destroyed by the police in a shootout in 1972 that also took the life of her unborn child. Mary Terror escaped the inferno, and she’s lived alone, on the run from the murders of her past, since 1972. She talks to God in her room, and listens to his commands at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. She waits like a coiled-up snake, an arsenal of guns around her, and she sniffs the air for the bitter, hated scent of pigs. Mary Terror is insane. Mary Terror is deadly.

And Mary Terror wants a baby.
Even now, that synopsis and my memories of Mine make me shiver.

However, just at the apex of his early renown, Robert R. McCammon stopped writing. Or at least that’s the way it looked at the time. In 1992, his Gone South reached bookstores in the States, but it was released a year later in the UK. This was a strange novel, blending a thriller plot with a gonzo-chase story. Commenting on how he came up with the plot for Gone South, McCammon writes:
I think the idea began five or six years ago, the first time I saw a man standing on the street, holding a sign that said “Will Work For Food.” Sometime after that, I read a magazine account of Vietnam veterans who had been contaminated by Agent Orange and were dying. I walked into a bookstore in New Orleans maybe a year after that and found a fascinating and very strange tome about freaks that included an old sepia-tone photo of a man with three arms. Also on that same trip, I took a tour of the swamp---not for any particular book, but for my own education. Later on, I watched an interesting TV show on PBS about Elvis Presley impersonators. One night on CNN, I saw a report on a Vietnam veteran who’d gone berserk and shot a couple of people, and the newscaster said that the man had been out of work for several months.

And this is how it happens. Gone South was starting to come together.

Gone South is on one level the story of a man on the run from a tragic mistake, but on another level it’s the story of a man moving toward something that he doesn’t fully understand. Its basic premise is that you can start out in one direction, and life and circumstances take you another way entirely, and sometimes all you can do is hang on for the ride. Gone South is about the pressures and uncertainties of life, the unfairness of it all; but it’s also about toughness, and faith, and finding a way through the thorniest maze to find some kind of answer.
As always, I ate up McCammon’s latest novel with relish. And I looked forward to his next offering. But what came was ... nothing. The author would remain silent for the next decade, ostensibly having retired from publishing, and his absence was nearly unbearable. There was no information about what came next, and McCammon didn’t issue any interviews. Rumors were plentiful and all over the map, but no one really knew why he had stopped writing. It was only thanks to Hunter Goatley’s unofficial Robert McCammon Web site, Lights Out!, that I finally learned in the late ’90s that McCammon would be returning. And with style.

(To be continued)

1 comment:

Grant McKenzie said...

Wolf's Hour definitely was a turning point for McCammon. It was as if he blossomed from a great horror writer into a brilliant novelist. Wolf's Hour was the stepping stone that propelled him to the next strata where Boy's Life was born, and what a strata it was. The fact that he continues to climb upward from that peak is spellbinding. And yes, naturally, I'm envious ;-)

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