Editor's note: This article appeared in the October 1988 issue of I Cover the War - A Monthly Guide to Culture and Entertainment, a free publication distributed in Birmingham, Alabama. It is reprinted here with the permission of its author (and editor of ICTW). Thank you!
Robert R. McCammon, successful horror novelist and genuine nice guy, is sitting across the table at a Hoover restaurant, gleefully recalling a nightmare vision of such grotesque intensity that I can barely stomach what little lunch I've managed to consume. It's not the details of some grisly murder, or a nightmarish description of some creature from the void. No, it's McCammon's fond memories of working over a hot waxer in the offices of the now-defunct Southern Style, the only decent free magazine Birmingham ever had before the emergence of yours truly. As McCammon smilingly muses over the joys of missed deadlines and lost artwork, I begin to truly mourn the loss of this once-promising writer's sanity. But then McCammon adds, "It's fun to think about it now, because I know I'll never go back to it." Ah, perspective.
Darn right McCammon won't be returning to the drudgery of independent publishing, no sooner than he'll return to drudgery of a copy desk at the Birmingham Post Herald or the drudgery of selling magazines at B. Dalton's Bookseller's in Brookwood Mall. Not that these aren't all noble professions, but knocking out horror novels between midnight and dawn is definitely a preferable pursuit. McCammon has spent the past decade in Homewood doing just that, after growing up in Roebuck and attending school in Tuscaloosa. McCammon just recently made the most recent of his moves, trading in the eeriness of Homewood for Vestavia's heart of darkness. Regardless of where the American public is calling, McCammon seems determined to remain an Alabama fixture.
Robert McCammon may not be so rich and famous that the entire I Cover the War readership knows of his name, but he is rich and famous enough to enjoy the luxury of knowing that if you haven't heard of McCammon, it's your fault! While Halloween 1987 was bearing down on us all, McCammon was just coming off the momentum of a two-month hitch on the New York Times Best Seller List, courtesy of his supernatural and apocalyptic epic Swan Song, a thousand-page chunk of literature that handily cemented his reputation as one of the horror genre's brightest stars. With six horror novels behind him, McCammon was heading into 1988 with his newcomer status comfortably dismissed, and was just beginning to enjoy the security and tension of becoming a true "name-brand" author... a rite of passage which some horror purists consider tantamount to becoming a "best-selling hack." Perched between becoming a leading mainstream author or a powerful force in respected horror literature, McCammon carefully examined his options and pulled off the neat trick of becoming both.
On the popular literature front, McCammon recently surprised the public by following the moralistic and philosophizing Swan Song with Stinger, a novel that, despite its impressive length, bravely exploits tried and true subject matter lifted from the second bill of a 1955 drive-in double feature. Set within a 24-hour period, Stinger follows the escapades of a refugee outer-space alien seeking to avoid capture by a merciless intergalactic bounty hunter, and the Texas townspeople who attempt to protect their visitor from the nasty mercenary. It's a straight-shooting actioner that's a far cry from Swan Song's deathly serious subject matter. Which, in the book's own weird way, makes Stinger the perfect follow-up, distancing McCammon from the foreboding darkness that has marked many of his previous works.
"I have my next, maybe, five or six books plotted out, so I felt I needed to go ahead and do Stinger now. Stinger was written as an experiment. I wanted to write something fairly simple, and had a lot of action. I'd been wanting to do that for years, and the time seemed right. I wanted to do it as a kind of a modern western, a Magnificent Seven type of thing."
Despite its obvious debt to the most popular of pop horror culture, the length of Stinger is mostly consumed by clever small-town characterization, an often forgotten element within genre fiction that McCammon considers the vital finishing touch. In addition, McCammon put additional pressure on himself within the dictates created by Stinger's complex plotting. "It was really difficult working with that many characters in a 24-hour span, because everything had to be compressed. You had to get everyone where they needed to be, in a short period of time. At the end, people had to be in the spaceship or their own places within 24 hours. When I got to the end, one of the characters wasn't where he was supposed to be, and I had to go back about 200 pages and start over from there. But the experience was fun."
Of course, the life of a popular author selling books all over America can get pretty gut-wrenching, what with total strangers running around reading your books, sticking Garfield bookmarks in them and carrying them aboard tacky overseas cruises. Fortunately, McCammon's success has also brought him respect from his contemporaries, as evidenced by his first published outing of 1988, when three of his short stories were published in Night Visions IV, part of a series of horror anthologies produced by the respected Dark Harvest Press. Each edition features three authors invited to write without any restrictions from market-conscious publishers; in the latest edition, McCammon shared space with best-selling author Dean R. Koontz and noted short story writer Edward Bryant. "The Night Visions series has come into its own as being a prestigious collection. I really felt good when they asked me to be in it, particularly when I heard that Clive Barker was going to be editing." Although originally published in a hard-to-find hardback edition priced far beyond the budget of mortal horror fans, previous volumes of Night Visions have eventually been released in popular paperback form.
McCammon's national reputation is built upon his novels, but his finely-wrought short stories have brought him considerable acclaim and exposure within more specialized fields. Although McCammon properties are under option for development at various movie studios, McCammon's two filmed works to date have both been televised adaptions of short stories. One, "Makeup," appeared on [the short-lived ABC series Darkroom], while "Nightcrawlers," directed by William Friedkin, became one of the few acclaimed segments on CBS' failed revival of The Twilight Zone. "I did some short stories when I was in college, but nobody liked them. Because my first success was with a novel, I think that's where my main interest lies. But I'll have a collection of short stories coming out next October called Blue World. Simon and Schuster is also doing audio-tapes of the book, dividing the short stories over two tapes.
"Now that my novels have bought me some time and space, I can experiment with my short stories. There's going to be a story in the collection called `The Pin,' written from the viewpoint of a killer who's about to take his wife out to McDonald's and start shooting people. But first, he's going to drive a straight pin through the center of his eye. He's going to drive this pin through the center of his eye, and he's going see this flash of light, and he's going to know exactly what is at the center of the universe. And then he's taking his wife out and shoot everybody at McDonald's. The entire story is from his viewpoint, written in his voice. It's a very experimental short story that I probably wouldn't have written at the first of my career. But now that I've become fairly successful, I can afford to experiment a bit. And that's really fun."
McCammon first found himself the object of critical acclaim and industry affection with the 1981 publication of his vampire epic, They Thirst. Prior to this breakthrough, however, McCammon had spent his journeyman days as the author of Baal (1978), Bethany's Sin (1979), and The Night Boat (1980), all works that McCammon considers part of his tenure as a category novelist. McCammon's past catches up with him this October, however, as Simon and Schuster [(Pocket Books)], publisher of Swan Song and Stinger, rereleases McCammon's first four novels (Mystery Walk (1983) and Usher's Passing (1984) were published by Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, who still hold rights). Although this represents the publishing industry acknowledging an established McCammon audience, the author remains realistic about how the early work compares to his accomplishments of recent years. "I always hear about writers who've written four books that end up in a drawer, and their fifth book is the one that gets published. The first book I ever wrote was published, flaws and all. For better or worse, I was allowed to learn to write in public. I think those books are simply early efforts. You have to take them as they are. I don't think they're very deep or anything; I think they're okay, but they simply represent where I was at that particular time."
McCammon isn't so jaded that he can't anticipate the experience of strolling into his local bookstore and finding six McCammons lined up in a row, each repackaged with new cover art designed to promote his name. "It's going to be really strange to walk in and see all the books together. It's going to be tremendous, I think. Every time I see the cover of a book, it's amazing. When you're writing a book in the office, you don't really understand how it connects to other people. But when you see your book in a bookstore, you realize it's available, and a lot of people are going to see it. It gives you a different perspective."
McCammon's own perspective got a jolt this past summer when the Horror Writers of America held their first awards ceremony in New York. "We had about 300 people there, all writers in the field. I guess this sounds like bragging, but Swan Song won an award for Best Novel; it tied with Stephen King's Misery. I also won for Best Short Story with `The Deep End,' which is from Night Visions IV. It all took me by surprise, because when I found out that King was up for Misery... well, of course I knew King was going to get it. But I managed to tie with the popular vote. The short story award really took me by surprise; I had no idea I was going to win."
It's been two novels since McCammon last appeared in hardback, but both his book sales and professional reputation have prospered in that time. "You may get more critical respect, or you may get more respect period, by being in hardback, but you're not going to necessarily sell more books. You're always going to sell more books in the paperback format. The new book, The Wolf's Hour, will be out in March, and the one I'm working on now will be out the following year, I guess. I'm extremely excited about The Wolf's Hour because I believe it's a hardback quality book. I think there are books that are hardback quality and books that are paperback quality. Stinger is a paperback quality book."
Not that this had much to do with the honors he garnered at their recent awards ceremony, but McCammon was one of the early organizers of the recently-formed Horror Writers of America. Out of a sense of duty? Out of respect for his fellow craftsmen? Out of an undying love for the genre? "I was lonely, actually. I didn't know anyone else in this area who did what I do. Writing is a very solitary experience; I just sit alone in my office. Now I know people all over the country who do the same thing, and I can call them up. It's nice to have a group, a place where you meet. It's really kind of a union; we talk about what somebody's paying, or if somebody's not paying, and we can keep up with trends in the publishing business through the organization. This is something I didn't have when I was starting out, and it's been a big help... especially to other people who are just starting out in this business.
"There are several names in this business, but there are a lot of writers doing it, a lot of writers who maybe are averaging a thousand dollars each book. Because horror is considered by so many people to be a very cheap genre, a lot of young writers get totally screwed by publishers. They may sell their first book for a thousand dollars; they may sell their tenth book for two thousand dollars. The publishers just aren't going to give them a lot of money because the writers don't have representation.
"I was kind of the first to start talking about the organization in public, and I kind of took the heat when we first started talking about it. There's always going to be opposition to any new idea. People were saying, `Do we really want to call us horror writers? Doesn't that cheapen what we're trying to do?' Well, maybe so, but in our world of categories, what can we call ourselves? Straight fiction is a category, Southern fiction is a category. But the organization is successful now, and I think it's going to continue to do very well."
McCammon has spent the past few years breaking various levels of celebritydom, with recent events assuring him a chief position as a genre author and respected practitioner of serious horror literature. As his fan mail brings in less crazed ramblings and more messages from mainstream America, McCammon finds himself wondering what to expect as his reputation grows, and uncertain as to when "household status" becomes a reality. "I don't know when that happens. I don't even know if I want that to happen or not. I guess with so many books going into print, there might be some national coverage. As far as promoting my `career,' I guess it's a good thing, but I'm pretty happy with the way things are going now.
"I always think of myself as two people, anyway. I consider Rick McCammon as a kind of ordinary, okay guy, while Robert R. McCammon -- the person who goes and does this work — is different. When I sit down at my typewriter, I kind of have a different mind-set, and I'm not the same person as when I sit down and am out having lunch with somebody."
And that person having lunch with somebody can darn well pay the tab, too. Despite fond memories of waxing machines and daily newspaper drudgery, McCammon is still savvy enough to have a grasp on just how beautiful things are in his neighborhood. "They printed about a million copies of Swan Song and about a million copies of Stinger. That's a lot of books. It's amazing to go into these hole-in-the-wall bookstores over in New York and see all these copies of your book.
"So much is amazing to me. It's amazing to me that I've been doing this for about 11 years. My first book was published in '78, and it suddenly dawns on you that you've paid your dues, that you've been in it for a good amount of time. But after eleven years, people will still ask me, `Are you still writing?' It's me, it's what I do. This isn't just some phase I'm going through."