Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Robert McCammon

Robert McCammon

My girlfriend in college gave me a copy of Robert McCammon's Blue World, said I'd like it. She also mentioned a book called Boy's Life, said that one was good, too. Because I was the big writer and super smart English major and she was just a girl, I knew more than her about literature. I was the better judge of what was good. When she dumped me, I was left with that copy of Blue World. I kept it on a shelf in remembrance of her. Then one day I actually read the thing. Turned out I didn't know quite so much as I thought I did.

Blue World was an unexpected trick-or-treat bag of razor-bladed apples. One of them I actually recognized. In "Makeup" a crook finds a famous actor's makeup case. With the contents of the case, he's able to not only look like someone else, but to actually become someone else. Too bad the previous owner of the case was a horror movie actor. I had seen this story in an episode of The Dark Room years before. Took me a while to realize why the story was so familiar.

"Chico" is the story of a little boy, soft in the head, who enacts a subtle revenge upon his abusive step father. This story in particular held a special resonance for me.

Then there's "Pin," a story that never fails to evoke feelings of physical revulsion when I read it. It's about a man going crazy. He can no longer stand the light of the sun or of the golden arches on the corner near his house. So he befriends a pin. Goes so far as to declare it a god, names it Pin. The story is only four pages long, and it's the last page that rolls your stomach and electrifies your nerves as the man puts Pin to use.

And I feel I must mention "Something Passed By." It opens with a textbook example of what literary folks like to call a hook: "Johnny James was sitting on the front porch, sipping from a glass of gasoline in the December heat, when the doomscreamer came." Now you have to read this story, don't you? I won't tell you much about it except to say as over the top as the first sentence is, the story manages to drift softly to a beautiful, haunting ending. McCammon pays homage to his friends and heroes by naming the streets and places of this story's town after them. Follow King Street down to Bradbury Park then over to Ellison Field. The story feels like a love poem to the authors who showed McCammon the way. Or at the very least, a thank you letter.

It was a fateful day a couple years later when I found a nice little stack of McCammon's novels at a used bookstore. I brought them home and started Boy's Life remembering my ex's recommendation. I opened the book and fell into a world created just for me.

Boy's Life is about exactly that, a young boy's life, focusing mostly on a long, eventful summer. He lives in a magical town, as we all did once. There's a ghost who haunts a back-woods road, a monster in the river, a witch in the ghetto, a body in the lake. All the fantasies of my youth are on display. Cory meets the ghost, survives one monster and befriends another, solves a murder, discovers girls and rock-and-roll (both equally important to a boy), rides a magic bike, flies in the air with his dog at his side, learns the truth about death. There are passages in this book that never fail to make me weep with joy, shake with anger, or glow with pure joy. It's a masterpiece. It truly is. Upon first reading I placed it among my favorite books. Had I maintained my initial snootiness about literature, my life would have been so much poorer.

The rest of the McCammon books I've read are all good, though none affect me the same way as Boy's Life. In Stinger an alien ship lands in a small desert town and begins to take over the bodies of its citizens. This could have been your average invasion story, but McCammon's voice and pacing make an old story vibrant again. He's a master at constructing a scene. His action sequences are without peer. And his plot lines build toward a perfect climax, one you know is coming but breathlessly await anyway. And along the way we meet an amazing cast of characters who resonate in our minds long after the story is told.

Swan Song is about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. One of many books on the subject written during the 80s, it stands out because of its characters. They all act realistically, even in unrealistic situations. We love the heroes, we hate the villains, just as we should, but none of them are paper cutouts. It's a mammoth book spanning years and the entire US. The opening passages describing the actual bombing are brutal. New York is engulfed in fire, and we're there, trapped in a sewer as the world above burns. Missiles fly from the Kansas plains, and we see a man who cannot turn away from the horrid glory and watch his eyes melt to jelly. In an underground military bunker a general is trapped when a wall collapses on his arm, and he calls upon a young boy to amputate his hand with a cleaver. After that it gets bloody.

The Wolf's Hour is an espionage tale in which a werewolf joins the Allied forces as a special agent in World War II. The Axis scheme that unfolds is farfetched, but when you have a werewolf fighting Nazis, where else is there to go but over the top? Woven into the war story is the history of how the hero became a lycanthrope, how he was initiated into the pack and learned to control his transformations, how he left his idyllic life in the wild to work for the human war machine. It's a breathless ride that still manages to pause and contemplate man's relation to the natural world.

After writing Gone South, which was an unexpected change from his usual horror-tinged fantasy stories, McCammon went silent for almost a decade. But he was not idle. He was researching. His new series is set in colonial America and continues to eschew fantasy for down-to-earth mystery. The action is still fast paced, McCammon's phrasing and pacing as precise as always. He's a writer who obviously enjoys his work. His enthusiasm shines on every page, and I'm glad to see him back at it.

I haven't read all his books, and now it seems I may not get the chance. He has purposefully allowed his first four novels to go out of print. His reasoning is that they represent a writer still learning his craft who was lucky to have his first efforts published. I know my first novel is unworthy of publication, but I would love to read McCammon's just for the chance to peek back in time as he first put ink to paper, to watch him find and flex his voice. I'm sure it would be instructional. As I'm constantly reminded, there's always something I need to learn.

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