The Border (2015) by Robert McCammon

border_10_hcThe Border is Robert McCammon‘s long-anticipated return to the balls-to-the-wall horror of such classics as Swan Song (1987). Unfortunately, the balls are missing, the wall is crumbling and the result is a poor copy of that earlier (far superior) novel.

There’s not a whole lot of originality in The Border. The plotline is pretty much lifted wholesale from Swan Song, with a supernaturally gifted youngster leading a ragtag pack of survivors to a US president hiding in a mountain base. But instead of a nuclear war, it’s an alien war that has devastated the planet. That ingenious difference probably comes from any number of alien invasion movies, video games and TV shows, with Falling Skies being perhaps the most obvious one.

Even overlooking the secondhand premise it’s hard to enjoy the novel; the storytelling drags, forcefully, like the novel had no literary editor at all (some typos and a constant, annoying use of dot dot dot also imply that some quality control was surrendered in the making of this novel). The beginning is alright, but an overlong alien sex sequence (!) segues into a long, interminable bus ride which takes just forever, with basically no breaks in between. I mean, couldn’t there have been at least some attempt to flesh out the world in which these characters live.

Besides the miracle kid Ethan who finds himself turning into a Silver Surfer, only the television evangelist Jefferson Jericho is sketched out in any significant detail; he’s the only character worthy of the title “character” in the novel, the others being basically cardboard stand-ins. The aliens are alien, and particularly one-note creations at that, with a (not at all surprisingly) silly Terminator-like mandroid Vope being the most memorable one, besides the penis-milking alien queen (really can’t get that alien sex sequence out of my mind, sorry).

The single positive thing about the novel and its remarkably undeveloped world are the mutants, the feral Gray Men, who for some reason or other keep attacking the live ones (one assumes it’s because their kind always do that in movies). There’re some moments approaching horror in these scenes, but it’s all by the numbers with no surprises, and of course they all fizzle out and it’s back to the bloody bus and a deus ex machina ending. One almost wishes someone had pushed the reset button much, much earlier.

The other saving grace of the novel is its relatively short length and some semblance of readibility (meaning it’s not the worst horror novel I’ve read, not by far; but I guess that just says something about how many truly crappy horror novels there are). At 400+ pages The Border is mercifully over fairly quickly – and it’s still hefty enough that it can be used as a doorstop or a paper weight. Small mercies, eh?

Skip this one and pick up Swan Song.

** (2/5)

Available now in multiple formats from Subterranean Press. Visit the author’s site and check out his far superior earlier books! Even the fairly recent I Travel by Night kicks some serious butt.

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Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

swansong_2
UK paperback (Sphere)

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.

Swan_song_cover
US paperback (Pocket Books)

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.

**** (4/5)

Published by Pocket Books in 1987. Available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site! And remember McCammon’s new novel The Border (out in May)!

Baal by Robert R. McCammon

American paperback edition (Pocket Books)
American paperback edition (Pocket Books)

McCammon’s new novel The Border is out very soon from Subterranean Press, but here’s where it all began back in 1978; Baal is a very concise, pulpy and epic horror novel on a global scale, told in three acts.

Things kick off in seventies’ grimy America, as the future mom of the demon gets attacked on the street. She’s saved in the nick of time, but gets strange burn marks all over her body. Later, she gets pregnant by her husband and gives birth to an obviously evil baby boy. When the father tries to drown the titular demon-to-be, the mother kills him. The kid gets shuffled off to a series of orphanages. As he grows older, he adopts the name Baal and starts messing with the nuns and the priests, and turns his fellow orphans into disciples.

The second act moves the events to Kuwait, where people are going bananas over a mysterious religious leader. A theologist, Donald Naughton, goes to investigate and disappears. His colleague, James Virga, goes looking for Naughton and discovers that a now grown-up Baal is the one to blame for all the hubbub. He finds a helping hand in Michael, who seems to know a thing or two about what’s going on.

After a fake assassination attempt, Baal disappears, and Virga and Michael track him to Greenland for the final act. They find him and start skiing to the ocean. A cosmic battle between good and evil follows, with Virga the only survivor.

There’s an infectious energy to the novel; it’s bursting at the seams, the short length barely able to contain all the ideas. The first two thirds are excellent, with the first part echoing such classic horror as The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby. The second part in Kuwait is the high point, suffocating and claustrophobic, predating Dan Simmons‘ similarly atmospheric Song of Kali by more than half a decade. There’s also a spark of genius in keeping Baal out of the picture for most of the action, with the increasingly tumultuous events being observed through the eyes of outsiders Naughton and Virga.

British paperback edition (Sphere)
British paperback edition (Sphere)

But after Kuwait, there should’ve been more. Baal’s barely made his grand entrance when he fakes his own assassination and goes into hiding. The scenes in Greenland are good and the milieu’s great, but it’s almost as if the novel is running out of steam by that point. It lumbers to its inevitable conclusion, but after all the excellent set-up, Baal kind of goes out with a whimper.

It’s obvious Baal was McCammon’s first novel, written when he was only 25 years old, and for a time he kept it out of print (along with several other early ones) for that very reason. Baal is nowhere as well-developed or evenly told as, for instance (my favourite) They Thirst, but it has its merits. The youthful exuberance of it all makes it a joyous read, and even back then, McCammon’s brisk use of language was in evidence. The Kuwait chapters alone are worth the visit. Baal doesn’t quite reach the dizzy heights it aspires to, but it makes a great effort, and in doing so points the way for McCammon’s later novels. A brave first novel.

**** (4/5)

First published in 1978. Visit the author’s site and get McCammon’s new sf/horror novel The Border (out in May 2015) from Subterranean Press!

They Thirst by Robert R. McCammon

They thirstThey Thirst (1981) is a vampire novel with a vicious bite; an epic, go-for-broke account of how an ancient vampire king brought down the City of Angels. It’s a big story, with big stakes (pun intended), but it all works: Robert R. McCammon‘s fourth novel is an action-packed story with small moments of humanity against an apocalyptic backdrop.

The vampire king is Prince Vulkan, a thousand-years-old Hungarian who sets up court in Castle Kronsteen, a gothic house built by an old movie star. Vulkan uses his powers to assemble the worst of humanity: Kobra, a psychopath becomes his right-hand-man, while Roach, a serial killer, is used as a renfield to deliver “lunch” up to the castle. Vulkan’s mission is simple: conquer Los Angeles. All of it. As the vampire populace grows night after night, coffins are dug up in cemeteries for use as daytime cribs for the vampires.

This attracts the attention of a police detective on the hunt for Roach; Andy Palatazin, also originally from Hungary, who happens to have some personal experience with vampires. He recognizes the signs, and realizes what’s happening, but of course nobody believes him.

And here the novel bares its fangs, and smiles gleefully; the oncoming apocalypse is just another day in LA. McCammon roots the action in believable, realistic scenery, with everyday problems and latino gangs and police on the trail of a killer. All things supernatural therefore have a firm basis on which to stand, and boy, they truly do stand tall.

A wonderful example is the chapter where Father Silvera, a local priest and one of the central figures in the novel, enters an apartment block with mostly poor latino immigrants. Silvera doesn’t know it, but the house has been attacked by vampires. The discovery of newly turned vampires cowering under beds and in the closets is horrific; it’s supernatural horror, brought down to a realistic level. And equally realistically, the society goes through the motions and takes the vampires to hospital, since vampires aren’t real, after all. This denialism against all evidence is emblematic of the novel, and it’s executed very effectively.

The residents of LA do wake up to their new reality soon enough, and here McCammon holds nothing back. The normality shatters almost overnight. A sandstorm of supernatural origins strikes LA, turning daytime into a constant barrage of sand and wind. When the characters, led by Palatazin and Father Silvera, finally round up their resources and start their counterattack, it’s almost too late. The odds are overwhelmingly against them, and their mission to the vampire den is a suicide mission. But even as the world comes down all around them, the human spirit grits its teeth and survives, with some deus ex machina (about 9.5 on the Richter scale) help.

McCammon’s writing and pacing are excellent throughout; the realism is palpable, the apocalyptic consequences fantastically vivid. The characters are likeable and their survival rate is low; but their deaths always count for something. The action is constant and pleasantly over the top, but McCammon always remembers to keep his feet on the ground. And the story never loses its focus, it’s very controlled storytelling that apportions action and plot and just generally kick-ass moments of great eighties horror in equal measure.

They Thirst may be one of those rare novels that can be summed up in one word, and that word is awesome.

***** (5/5)