Best-selling horror novelist Robert R. McCammon might never have become a successful author if it hadn't been for a frustrating dead-end job at a Birmingham newspaper.
"I wanted to be a reporter after I graduated from (the University of) Alabama," said McCammon in a slight Southern drawl during a recent telephone interview from his office in Birmingham. "But it was the era of `All The President's Men' and everyone wanted to be a journalist. So I could only get a job as a copy editor on the night desk, going over other people's material ... writing headlines.
"I was told (that) if I hung around long enough, I'd get to write. ... Then they started hiring from other newspapers. I had to give it a shot -- so I ate a lot of soup, lived in an apartment with no furniture. As long as I had a desk and a typewriter, that was all I needed."
McCammon got write to work. Holt, Rinehart & Winston published his first book, "Baal," in 1978. By the mid-'80s, McCammon had published five more novels which had sold sporadically and been allowed to go out of print. Among them was "They Thirst," a story about a coven of vampires living in Los Angeles. It became a hit in hard-core horror circles.
"`They Thirst' started getting me noticed. It was also the first book I made any real money on," he added.
McCammon switched publishers, landing at Pocket Books, which published "Swan Song," a grand tale of a demonical figure's attempt to raise a legion of the damned in a post-Apocalyptic America—in 1987. It made the New York Times best-sellers list.
"Stinger," a novel about an alien bounty hunter who lands in a Southwest desert town in murderous search of a fugitive, followed "Swan Song" onto the list in 1988. "The Wolf's Hour" repeated in 1989.
These successes have made McCammon the fastest-rising star in modern horror fiction—a genre distinguished by authors Stephen "The King" King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub and far too many pretenders to count. (It wouldn't hurt to look for Ramsey Campbell's work, either.)
This year Pocket has published a collection of McCammon short stories, "Blue World," and a hardcover, "Mine," both of which aren't precisely horror.
"Mine" still has the McCammon touch for the gruesome. It is a jolting, grisly trek across Middle America led by Mary "Terror" Terrell: serial killer, baby-napper, acid casualty and ex-member of a violent '60s anti-establishment revolutionary clan modeled after the Weather Underground.
"I wasn't involved with student activism at Alabama," said McCammon. "But on a book-selling jaunt I visited Berkeley and there were people hanging around who seemed to be burnt out. Their lives had been successful during the protests of the '60s ... but they didn't know where to go from there."
Mary Terror is, of course, pathetically insane. As a fugitive once engaged in the struggle against capitalism, she has finally washed up on the shore of American society as a listless fast-food worker. A ticking time-bomb of coiled brutality and mad delusion, Terror cuts a bloody swath across the countryside on a pilgrimage to her final destiny.
"Their true self was lost somewhere," said McCammon of these people. "A major, vital portion of these individuals was gone."
This became part of the basis for Terror's character. McCammon also made her something of an unlikely hero—perhaps under different circumstances and not undone by time, a person to be admired. "I wanted to evoke a little caring for Mary ... you can be caring for another human being who's done terrible things."
Characterization and the art of story-telling are McCammon's strengths. Violence in his novels becomes almost (but not quite) incidental as the pages turn. By the mid-point of "Stinger," any reader who isn't a stone finds himself with a sneaking liking for the foul-mouthed intergalactic monster and its diseased sense of humor even as it goes about razing the unfortunate village. That's the power of McCammon's characterization.
This, he said, is where the current crop of horror writers comes up short. "It's disturbing, because it's not the same field I got into back in the late '70s. The writers are producing stories that are like movies, because that's what sells.
"Horror movies today are atrocious, unappealing ... they have no class. They appeal to people who aren't readers ... and the newer writers feel they should follow in that style.
"Character development is the most important thing. Characters drive a story. If you don't have them you have no story."
Horror fiction is judged by the worst of it, continued McCammon. This is because "movies get a huge audience; best-sellers make only a tenth of what a movie can make.
"And I hope that's not what people want ... it's not where I'm going. All the characters are bad, there's an attitude of rampant destruction.
"I don't think everything in the world is bad ... at least, I hope it isn't."
What this means, said McCammon, is that newer writers who have something to offer get lost in the tripe of the genre—a fate which almost happened to him. "People want non-stop action; they don't want to know about motivations.
"And I thought that, maybe, if that's so, I'd better try something else. But I realized I wasn't qualified to do anything else, so I'd better get back to it."
McCammon said that his books weren't selling and that he had worked himself into a poor situation at Holt. He got a new agent and began looking for a different publisher which led him to Pocket. "In the publishing business, most things aren't done by design. Occasionally they are—heh, heh—but more often it's just groping in the dark. You just have to keep groping until it works."
Pocket was more sympathetic to McCammon's style, plus "they allowed me to be myself." This meant that he could contemplate non-traditional horror like "The Wolf's Hour," and non-horror projects such as "Mine" and the short story, "Blue World."
Apparently, McCammon's readers like it that way just fine.
Copyright © 1990 by The Morning Call. All rights reserved. Reprinted without permission of the author. The article can also be found on The Morning Call website.