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.
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.