This review of Robert McCammon's Speaks the Nightbird is by Ali Karim and was done
for Shots eZine. It will be online on the
Shots web site
at the end of September 2002. Thanks to Ali and Shots for allowing it
to be reprinted here.
Speaks the Nightbird by Robert R McCammon
Reviewed by Ali Karim for SHOTS Magazine
Back in the late 1970's and into the early 1990's when Horror fiction was booming, there was a voice that shared the bookshelves with Stephen King on an equal footing, and that was Robert R McCammon. He was widely published in the UK by Sphere, and in my opinion, his work was critical in the development of the horror genre with such pinnacles as Swan Song, Mystery Walk, The Wolf's Hour and They Thirst. His last three novels however moved away from the genre, just as the genre itself was collapsing into parody with the "Splatterpunk" movement and its gore-filled ilk. With MINE he explored the urban thriller (with its hangover from the 1960s), with Boy's Life he explored "coming of age" in what many describe as his most successful novel, and his last published work Gone South explored the road chase thriller.
Robert McCammon mysteriously "vanished" after Speaks the Nightbird had been declined by his US publisher, and so he decided to "retire" and withdrew from publishing.
River City Publishing in the US however have decided in a bold manoeuvre to publish Speaks the Nightbird and I must thank them for bringing back one of the most remarkable writers I have had the fortune to read. A writer who never shies away from tackling a difficult topic. Speaks the Nightbird shares a similar theme that Arthur Miller tried in The Crucible but McCammon adds a few unexpected twists and bumps along the way.
This novel is again a departure for McCammon, as it is a meticulously researched historical novel set at the turn of the 16th century in the fictional deep south town of Fount Royal in South Carolina. The plot centres on a witch trail of Rachel Howarth (a "mixed race" beauty with Portuguese blood) accused of murdering the town clergyman Rev. Grove and her own husband Daniel.
Isaac Woodward, an infirm magistrate, and his assistant-apprentice Matthew Corbett are sent to investigate following the disappearance of the previous investigators. They soon are held at the mercy of criminals in a pretty seedy inn run by brigands, but escape with only their lives, and a Portuguese coin. Once in Fount Royal the games start with the Mayor fighting to keep the town alive. Disease and damp weather conspire against the town, with a witchcraft rumour driving the town-folk away. The Mayor feels if he can destroy the witch, Rachel, he could save his precious town.
The trail is a long drawn out affair, with Matthew being imprisoned with Rachel following a fracas with Hazelton, the Blacksmith who like the towns folk, have secrets to hide, and then he starts to unravel the other lies within the town. All the while Matthew's Master and protector, the Rev. Woodward is getting progressively more ill.
The initial supernatural theme is soon down-played, and in parts the book veers toward the erotic, with town folk describing in lurid detail, Rachel's alleged consorts with the devil. Subtle racism comes across as a theme, as does trust. The books pace is slow, as the tale unravels like the layers of an onion, and much period detail is revealed, and for those with a bent toward historical mysteries, this book will satisfy deeply. There are a large array of Characters and at times I found difficult to keep track of, but soon, revelations appear that mark them out, as the mystery unfolds.
This is a masterful historical mystery novel with detail and characters and with a whopping 670 pages, it is a book that you will get lost in, and wish it could continue for longer.
I really hope it sells well and finds a British Publisher, as Robert McCammon has been deeply missed from our shelves. This is a one in a million type of book, and one to read slowly and savour.
Published September 2002
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