Here we go ’round the mulberry bush in post-apocalyptic America, the salvation of which depends on one little girl called Swan. Possessing a supernatural affinity towards plantlife (including mulberry bushes, I assume), she has the power to bring a world devastated by nuclear war back to life.
But it’s almost one thousand pages to get there, and there’s a nuclear wasteland in between. Luckily she has a little help from her friends; there’s the former wrestler Josh (aka. Black Frankenstein), as well as the traumatized woman known only as Sister Creep, plus a few others. In addition to general devastation, radiation and other ills of the war, the good guys are opposed at every turn by the devilish Man with the Scarlet Eye, whose sole purpose seems to be to destroy all life and hope, with glee, while humming the old song.
The structure is familiar; the protagonists and the antagonists (including a ragtag Army of Excellence led by a crazed colonel and a psychopathic teenager) start out separately and are then brought together by the plot. Beginning with an epic Tom Clancy opening, the novel soon settles into a comfortable groove, with closeups on the handful of survivors and their travails. The episodic quality keeps the stories going, with some fits and jumps; there are the chapters with the sad and the chapters with the mad, familiar tropes all from such later shows as Walking Dead.
Towards the end, some of the plot strands are railroaded rather forcefully towards the conclusion; the neat and tidy ending is perhaps slightly too neat and tidy. Some of the ideas, such as Job’s Mask (a growth/cocoon around the face that later bursts to reveal the character’s true inner self), provide altogether obvious and unnecessary emphasis. The many Christian references late in the novel are also somewhat surprising; perhaps in the eighties religion didn’t quite have the same stigma it carries in these latter days.
There’s a healthy helping of the supernatural and the fantastic in the mix; Sister Creep is led to Swan and Josh by a glass ring (glass and jewels from Manhattan shops fused together in a nuclear blast) that gives her visions. The Man with the Scarlet Eye wants it, and it’s his short forays to the center stage – watching a movie at an undamaged movie theater in otherwise levelled Manhattan is a particular high point – that give the novel that extra kick, especially when the gloomy realism of the post-apocalyptic world starts to become too much to bear.
The writing is familiar McCammon, with a kind of electric charge humming throughout the novel. Due to the massive length, the current sometimes sags and surges, but that’s only natural. McCammon weaves his saga expertly, with seemingly disparate elements (the glass ring, tarot cards, phrases from T.S. Eliot) being fused one by one together at later points. The characters are likeable, with Swan growing up into her Fisher Queen role, and Sister Creep coming out of her personal haze to save the world. Of the evildoers, the teenage army captain Roland Croninger, who loses himself in his own strange game, stands out. It’s a long journey, but the company’s great and the scenery will blow your mind.