Super Crown Book News, August 1991
Robert R. McCammon's success is hard to trace. There doesn't seem to be any single break-out book that catapulted him onto the bestseller lists. Certainly Swan Song, his first huge seller, marked his recent climb to the top. But it seems that overnight his entire backlist was reissued and then, before anyone noticed, McCammon was one of the top horror writers in the world.
And herein lies the rub with McCammon's latest book, Boy's Life (Pocket, $21.95), for if we are to define a horror book as one for which fear is a central concern, then Boy's Life fails to fit this slot. "I didn't set out to not write a horror novel," McCammon says. "But I am probably moving away from supernatural horror. It's kind of like a magician knowing how the trick works: I know what the tricks are like; now I'm interested in doing different things."
Boy's Life is certainly unlike any of his other novels, and is easily his best to date, displaying a range that is astonishing. A tour de force of storytelling, it is a powerful story about the magic inherent in everyday life, about the many wonders and pains of growing up, about the strange beauty around us that we so often miss. Magic is everywhere in McCammon's town of Zephyr, where the ghost of a little boy comes looking for a dog and a phantom car seeks revenge, where a monster lives in the river and a triceratops roams the woods, where an old woman with powers gives a boy a strange bike, where unspeakable crimes are committed and past crimes are hidden, where dreams are the shortwave radios to the psyche.
"This magic is all around us," McCammon notes. "You just have to take the time to notice it, the time to see it, to understand that magic does exist in everyday life. It's easier for children to get to that magic since they don't have as many distractions. Children don't have to look at their watches to see when their next appointment is, they don't have to rush anywhere, and they have more opportunities to get at that magic and appreciate it."
The wonderful thing about Boy's Life is that magic is totally benign. It does not horrify. The supernatural is commonplace, and it does not come in malevolent forms. The dangers come from humans alone. In Boy's Life, Cory Mackenson is 11 going on 12 and is still young enough to see magic everywhere. He hasn't lost that special vision that comes with youth and leaves with age. The book opens with Cory accompanying his father on his milk delivery route. Out of the early morning darkness, a car cuts across the road and flies into the lake. Cory's father jumps in to save the driver, only to find the man has been brutally murdered. The man's face haunts Tom Mackenson, whose nightmares are driving him to a nervous breakdown. Cory is haunted too: by the memory of a man by the roadside who he is sure is the murderer.
And so Cory tries his best to unravel the mystery of who murdered the man in the car. This basic plot runs throughout the book, giving it a narrative drive and unifying purpose. But it is the smaller incidents in which we see the magic of Zephyr and experience what is the true richness of this book. Boy's Life has a wealth of small, anecdotal gems that give it all life. Like a kaleidoscope turning to reveal fascinating patterns in the light, so McCammon shows us a multitude of incidents and characters intertwining to create one of the most entertaining books in a long time. The residents of this town are quirky, fascinating, well-drawn characters, and the incidents, some only tangentially linked to the central plot, range from the grotesquely funny to the poignant, to the horrifying. This is what gives this novel its life and texture.
"I think good fiction needs to be multi-layered," McCammon admits. "You certainly must enjoy the story, but you should also take some of the story away with you when you close the book. A good piece of fiction raises questions about life. It has to draw you into as complete a world possible, so that you really feel you are in this world and that you really know these characters. When you leave this book, I think you should feel somewhat of a loss and sadness at having to leave that world and those people."
McCammon's empathy with and for his characters is obvious in that, though they may be hurt or irrevocably changed, they always come through in the end: "After I invest time and energy in a fictional world with people who become real to me, I don't want to cause them horrible suffering, because I really feel as if my characters are my children. I don't want to leave the reader with a feeling that these things aren't taken care of."
A Birmingham, Ala., resident for almost all his life, Rick McCammon obviously has a special tie to the South. It shows through in his smooth Southern accent and in the regional flavor of this book. But does he consider himself a "Southern" writer? "In that I was born and raised in the South, I would say yes. When I started my career I consciously did not want to do a Southern novel. It took me a long time to write a book based in the South, and the first was Mystery Walk. I really don't like those labels, though. The next few books will be based in the South, but then I'll go away from it for a while. I don't want to limit myself. It may be that my voice is more effective as a Southern writer, since I'm much more aware of my surroundings here, and I can really relate to that character in Boy's Life. His home town is somewhat based on the neighborhood I grew up in, but it's also a kind of mythic place where people would like to have grown up."
This time next year readers can expect Gone South, a straight suspense novel with elements of black comedy. Following this, McCammon will go in yet another direction and write a historical novel with elements of mystery. It's obvious that he is a writer who cannot be put into neat genre slots, something for which readers should be grateful.
T. Liam McDonald is a journalist who covers horror. He also writes extensively on historical subjects.