MCCAMMON'S BACK WITH A WITCHY THRILLER
JC Patterson—special to The Clarion-Ledger
In the mid-80's, Robert McCammon became my favorite horror writer. He beat out Stephen King, was a predecessor to Clive Barker, left the other horror wannabe's in his dust. They Thirst is still one of the best vampire tales ever written. The Wolf's Hour, Stinger, Swan Song, Usher's Passing, and Mystery Walk line my horror hall of fame.
Then McCammon turned the corner. Much to his fans' dismay, he retired from the horror genre. In 1990, the author penned Boy's Life, one of the finest coming of age tales I've ever read. After a 1992 thriller, Gone South, McCammon fell off the literary map.
Now ten years later, he's made up for all that time out of the loop. Speaks The Nightbird (River City Publishing, $27.95) is a heavy, 725 page concoction, aimed at the witchcraft trials in the late 1600's and the feeding frenzy surrounding them.
It's also the debut for McCammon with River City Publishing, a small Montgomery, Alabama publisher. A larger conglomerate wanted the author to change a key element in his story. He felt so strongly about his characters and their outcome, McCammon opted with someone who could see his true vision of Nightbird.
A bold move, yet one that makes this tale all the more satisfying.
Travel back in time to the year 1699. America is settling in the wilderness, wrestling the elements, mixed with cutthroats and highwaymen, not to mention "savage" Indians ready to take their scalps.
Salem has had its witch scare. Now, thirty years later, in the struggling town of Fount Royal in Carolina, a young woman named Rachel is being held in that hamlet's "gaol." She's been accused of murdering her husband and the local preacher, consorting with the devil and his minions, and causing the town to fall on hard times.
"Comes a travelling magistrate to hold a witch trial, and his clerk Matthew." Magistrate Isaac Woodward and young Matthew Corbett are on their last leg of the journey, having passed through Charles Town, "a paradise compared to this dripping, green hell."
But first, Woodward and Matthew must confront Will Shawcomb, an innkeeper straight out of Les Miserables. The legal duo part in the mud and rainsoaked night with little more than their lives intact.
As they creep into Fount Royal, the magistrate and his ward discover a town in decay. Blame it on the witch, they all say. When she's burned, everything will return to normal. Don't count on it.
Woodward falls ill, making it difficult to continue the inquiry. Young Matthew, all of twenty, begins his metamorphosis into a cunning investigator. When he's imprisoned for an infraction with the local blacksmith, Matthew gets to know Rachel firsthand. He realizes the town witch has been blamed for murders and fires she couldn't have committed. But who are the real devils?
The evidence is heavily stacked. A weary and weak magistrate hears testimony from townspeople that is both terrifying and convincing. Even with Matthew vying as her "champion," Rachel doesn't stand a chance in hell (pun intended).
While the town's founder and a renegade preacher named Exodus Jerusalem chomp at the bit for a good burning, Matthew ponders the teacher, the doctor, the ratcatcher, the enterprising woman with the promiscuous daughter, and the odd troupe of actors passing through. The key lies with a gold coin that has mysteriously vanished. His mentor at death's door and the entire town against him, Matthew will risk everything for a walk up Truth Street to prove Rachel's innocence.
Speaks The Nightbird is a welcome return of a master writer who keeps his audience spellbound with every sentence. Robert McCammon has done his historical research proud; it resonates in every character and action. Powerful and tense, thrilling and atmospheric, this big, heavy book reads like a rocket on a witch hunt. Once you hear the Nightbird sing, you'll never be the same.