Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Man of Mystery, Part IV

(This is the final part of Ali Karim’s appreciation of 55-year-old American novelist Robert McCammon. Previous installments in this series can be found here.)

So, after his novel Gone South reached U.S. bookstores in 1992, Alabama author Robert R. McCammon “retired” from publishing. For years, the only source of information about him was fan Hunter Goatley’s unofficial McCammon Web site, Lights Out! There were rumors about an unpublished McCammon work entitled The Village, but as the 20th century wound into the 21st, the author asked Goatley to take down his Web site. Which he did, regretfully. It appeared to McCammon’s followers--me included--that his career had come to an end.

But then suddenly, about year later, I received an e-mail message from Goatley, informing me that McCammon was back to writing, and that a new Web site would soon premiere. That site went up in 2001, and helped mark the end of McCammon’s use of his middle initial (which, by the way, stands for “Rick”). I expected after that that the novelist would finally bring out The Village. As it happened, though, he was actually working on something completely different. In a 2005 interview between Goatley and McCammon, they addressed the fate of The Village:
McCammon: Yeah. The Village was also an experiment, I think. Though I do think it is an excellent book--I think The Village has some of the best writing that I’ve done, but it’s just so different, because it’s about the band of actors and actresses in Russia in World War II. At one point, my game plan was that I wanted to visit different historical eras. It was going to be for myself, too, because I wanted to educate myself in different historical eras. So I was going to do [Speaks the] Nightbird, and then I was going to do The Village, and then I was going to do one set in ancient Rome, and then there was going to be one set in the coal mines in England, and ... It would have been a tremendous amount of work, but beyond that, I think it would have scared publishers to death. Because publishers like for you to kind of do the--I won’t say “the one-note thing”--but it’s difficult for publishers to get a handle on how they should promote you, or how they should market you.

Goatley: Well, there were other problems with that, too. Publishers were scared of the subject matter, the cultural thing: European publishers thought European audiences wouldn’t read a book set in Europe during World War II that was written by an American. ...

McCammon: Yeah, right. Yeah. And there was some question about should it be marketed to men or women or ... Even though it had a woman as the lead, it was like, “Well, it’s set in war time, so shouldn’t it be marketed to men?” You know, I’m trying to avoid that kind of, uh--I’ll use the word--I’m trying to avoid that kind of crap. I want to make things simple, and it’s simpler for me to do the Matthew Corbett books set in 1700s. It’s simpler, and I’m trying to keep things simple. I want to enjoy what I’m doing. I’m trying to remove this unnecessary complexity from the writing and publishing process.
The first new McCammon novel in a decade--Speaks the Nightbird, which introduced the series character Matthew Corbett, a late-17th-century clerk working with a traveling magistrate who’s responsible for conducting witch trials--reached U.S. bookstores in 2002. Thanks to Goatley, I was able to get my hands on an advance reader’s copy ... and devoured it. And as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one captivated. “This is a masterful historical mystery novel with detail and characters, and with a whopping 670 pages, it is a book that you will get lost in, and wish it could continue for longer,” Stephen King wrote of Nightbird at the time.

The release of that novel reinvigorated Hunter Goatley, who further developed his McCammon Web site into the most comprehensive source of information about this enigmatic writer. Goatley also maintains a mailing list, and fans are sent e-mail notices as soon as he has posted major updates or new information to his site.

One of those notices, in 2007, said that the second installment of McCammon’s Corbett series, The Queen of Bedlam, was due out soon. I also heard that the author was committed to attending the next fall’s Bouchercon, which was to be held in Anchorage, Alaska. I cursed loudly, realizing that I couldn’t make the trip to the Last Frontier myself. But I did have the pleasure of reading Bedlam in advance of its publication, and wrote a review of it for the British e-zine Shots. That critique read, in part:
Bedlam is a creepy tale set at the time when New York City had a population that was in the thousands, and split between the Dutch and English settlers with a vibrancy that foretold its importance in the newly evolving America. Under the pen of McCammon it was also a very dangerous place.

Bedlam contains many complex plot strands, [and] a plethora of colourful and well-defined characters that intersect with young Corbett’s life, leading to a terrifying hunt for a serial-killer named “The Masker”. During this journey Corbett discovers a whole lot more about himself, swordplay and life.

Corbett is working for a magistrate, Nathaniel Powers, but soon finds himself turning detective for the Herrald Agency as a junior investigator in this fledging private investigations firm. The novel’s style reminded me of my own youth, when I devoured the tales of Holmes and Watson on the prowl in foggy, gas-light London. In fact if you enjoyed the work of Conan Doyle, you’ll love this novel.

The title’s “Queen” does not feature until much later and is a mysterious and unidentified old woman locked away at a mental institution that the Herrald Agency send Corbett to investigate. McCammon adds to the brew Eben Ausley, the pedophile Headmaster who abused many of Corbett’s friends at the orphanage that raised him, and who now resides in New York. The problem is that the serial killer (The Masker) and Ausley are destined to meet and the results will be death.

The beauty of McCammon’s prose coupled with his meticulous period research, [and] the array of surreal characters that follow the twisting narrative makes this novel so damned exciting. It is remarkable how McCammon manages to weave all these plot-strands and characters into a tapestry that is as exciting as it is beautiful and leads to a virtuoso climax which I just didn’t see coming.
I have the feeling that, while McCammon earned renown as a horror writer during that genre’s 1980s boom, it will be the Matthew Corbett mysteries for which he will be most fondly remembered. The Queen of Bedlam marks him as a master novelist and should not be missed.

Not long after reading that book, I finally had the chance to conduct a rare interview with McCammon via e-mail. We discussed his literary influences, his transition away from horror fiction, and the future of his Corbett series.

Ali Karim: I noticed that you were at Bouchercon in Alaska last year, launching The Queen of Bedlam. Can you tell us a little about what you got up to while you were there?

Robert McCammon: I got an e-mail from a friend of mine from high school and college, who now lives in Alaska, letting me know about the Bouchercon and asking if I might be interested in coming up. I’d never been to Alaska before, and also never had attended a Bouchercon. During the convention, I went to some panels and I was on a “historical mystery” panel, but I mostly just met other writers and hung around the convention center. Afterward, my friend and his wife showed me around Anchorage and took me to a few places outside the city that he particularly wanted me to see. I’m planning on going back, maybe next summer.

AK: Are you also planning to come to Bouchercon in Baltimore, Maryland, this year?

RM: I don’t know yet, I haven’t thought about it.

AK: The Matthew Corbett books are complex novels with many characters and snaking plots. How do you manage to keep all those complexities straight in your head?

RM: I keep notebooks with a lot of the historical facts that I need, but otherwise I do keep all the story in my head. How do I do that? All I can say is that when I’m writing these books I really “enter another world.” It’s a very intense experience. Almost like an altered reality, I guess.

AK: Do you still write during the night, or have you changed your writing habits?

RM: I do still work at night. It’s after midnight as I’m writing this. The night, and the quiet, is just “my time” to get the writing done.

AK: The ending of Queen of Bedlam suggests that a third volume in the Matthew Corbett series will follow. Why do post-Colonial America and Corbett interest you so much?

RM: The simple answer would be to say that I’ve always been interested in history and also in mystery stories, and that’s certainly part of it. But I [also] wanted to do something that was very different from what I’d done before. I’m very excited about this series, because it has a lot of potential--plus, it’s very challenging and fun to write--but also because I see a lot of potential in developing Matthew’s character. By no means is he going to be a “static” character, meaning that he’s hopefully going to grow and change during the progress of the series. In the new book I’m doing now, he makes a profound mistake and has to pay for it, so he’s certainly not infallible.

AK: The Corbett books are lavish in period detail. Can you tell us something about your research process?

RM: The research is never-ending. You think you know something, and you realize you’ve just scratched the surface. Of course, you don’t have to put everything you’ve learned about a subject in the book, as that wouldn’t be necessary; but the more you know about these period details, the more comfortable you’re going to be writing the story. It’s all about taking the reader there with you. And, having said that, no book set in an historical setting is going to be perfect in its details. Never. You just have to do the best you can, and learn as you’re going along.

AK: I felt that The Queen of Bedlam bore influences from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. So tell us a little about your own reading and literary influences over the years.

RM: Well, I absolutely was--and still am--a huge fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and also of course Poe, but I think other influences you could find in the Matthew Corbett books are characters as diverse as James Bond and Tom Swift. Also the fictional detectives Boston Blackie and Ellery Queen. Add to that the more fantastic adventures of Doc Savage. Stir in some shadows from the Hammer film series. And my own love of chapter serials from the 1940s and 1950s. So there really are a lot of different influences--I’d say a lifetime of influences--at work in the Corbett books.

AK: Are there any plans for a British edition of Bedlam, as you have a huge fan base over here? And what about non-English translations of the Corbett books?

RM: You know, I’m not sure about this. I would hope so, sooner or later. Maybe as the series progresses.

AK: Do you ever miss the days when you were one of the world’s biggest-selling horror novelists?

RM: I think I was just mostly what you would call a fairly successful “mid-list” author. Do I miss that? Absolutely not. Now, for sure I still enjoy reading horror, science fiction, and fantasy, because that’s what I began reading as a little boy and that’s what I seemed to always connect with. But I think there’s going to be enough “strange and eerie” atmosphere in the Corbett books to satisfy my appetite for that.

AK: I am still haunted by much of your early work, and Boy’s Life (1991) still echoes in my head decades on. I feel that novel was a pivotal one for you. Would you agree?

RM: Absolutely, though Mine [1990] was also different from what I’d done before. But for sure, I did go in a different direction in Boy’s Life--yet there was still a “strangeness” to it that, as I mentioned above, was true to the books and stories I enjoyed reading as a boy and ultimately made me want to write.

AK: Your departure from the horror genre coincided with it imploding shortly afterward. Why do you think the horror genre died a slow commercial death?

RM: I just lost interest in doing that, speaking of course for myself. It seemed like a very limited area. I mean, there are many writers still in the field who are doing good things, but for me it wasn’t too interesting anymore. I’m not sure if the horror genre has died, though, or if it will ever die. It’s just gone to sleep for a while.

AK: Will we ever get a chance to read The Village, your rumored but as-yet-unpublished novel?

RM: I don’t know. It’s just so different from what I’ve done. And it is very grim, very rough. It’s set in World War II and is not a supernatural horror novel at all. It’s about a troupe of Russian actors who go out on the battlefield to entertain the soldiers and do political plays to make the soldiers fight more fanatically, and then the actors find themselves in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia on a mission they didn’t expect. As I say, it’s not a supernatural horror novel, but it is a novel about the horrors of war. The “village” being the community of actors who come through the course of the book to consider themselves a family.

AK: So tell us about what the future holds for Robert McCammon?

RM: More Matthew Corbett. I’m working on the third book now, and I will say that after the fifth book the series will probably move from America to England and Europe for the last five. I’m excited, because even though I know pretty much how it’s going to develop, there’s still a lot to work out, and I feel like I’m writing a series that I’ve always wanted to read.

1 comment:

Grant McKenzie said...

Beautiful wrap-up, Ali, but you really should have twisted his nipples more over the fate of The Village. I want to read that book :-)

Cheers,
Grant

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