McCammon Interview: In the Light, by Spignesi

By Steve Spignesi, 1989

"In the Light"
An Interview with
Robert McCammon
by Steve Spignesi

Editor's note: This article appeared in the book The Shape Under the Sheet: The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia, by Steve Spignesi. The book was first published in 1991; the interview was conducted in October 1989. It is a very King-centric interview, but still has some interesting aspects. It is reprinted here with the permission of its author, Steve Spignesi. Thank you!

How good is Robert McCammon?

This good:

He listened to the rhythm of the hospital—the polite bing-bonging of signal bells through the intercom system, followed by requests for various doctors; the quiet, intense conversations of other people, friends and relatives of patients, in the seating area; the squeak of a nurse's shoes on the linoleum; the constant opening and closing of elevator doors. An ambulance's siren wailed from the emergency entrance on the west side of the hospital. A wheelchair creaked past, a black nurse pushing a pregnant dark-haired woman to the elevators en route to the maternity ward on the second floor. Two austere doctors in white coats stood talking to an elderly man, his face gray and stricken; they all entered an elevator together, and the numbers marched upward. The daily patterns of life and death were in full motion here, Jack mused. A hospital seemed to be a universe in itself, teeming with small comedies and tragedies, an abode of miracles and secrets from the morgue in its chill basement to the eighth-floor's wide corridors where mental patients paced like caged tigers.

—-From the short story "Best Friends"

And this good:

Through the diner's plate-glass windows, a dense curtain of rain flapped across the Gulf gas pumps and continued across the parking lot.

—-From the short story "Nightcrawlers"

And this good:

The wind churned, threw them one way and then the other—and as it withdrew from Brenda's apartment it took the two bodies with it, into the charged air over the city's roofs.

They flew, buffeted higher and higher, bone locked to bone. The city disappeared beneath them, and they went up into the clouds where the blue lightning danced.

They knew great joy, and at the upper limits of the clouds where the lightning was hottest, they thought they could see the stars.

—-From the short story "Eat Me"

As Joe Lansdale put it so aptly in his introduction to an interview with McCammon for Twilight Zone magazine, Robert R. "Rick" McCammon is "the embodiment of the perfect Southern gentleman, the kind of guy you wouldn't mind your daughter bringing home." He is gracious, modest, and very soft-spoken, and his quiet persona belies the sheer power of his fiction. From his writing, you'd almost expect Rick to be like his "Nightcrawlers" character Big Bob Clayton, a redneck who drinks "Rebel Yell whiskey straight," and whose "favorite songs are about good women gone bad and trains on the long track to nowhere."

McCammon's work has found a ready and eager audience since the publication of his first novel, Baal, in 1978, and even he recently had to admit that, yes, he is now collectible.

I was introduced to Rick by Dave Hinchberger, head honcho (when Laurie's not around) and chief cook and bottle-washer at the Overlook Connection. Rick was more than happy to talk to me for The Shape Under the Sheet, and we did an hour-long interview on an October Wednesday, just days before Halloween.

The title of this interview—"In the Light"—comes from Rick's magnificent short story "Nightcrawlers," which appeared in J.N. Williamson's first Masques anthology, and which was later made into a superb (new) "Twilight Zone" episode. Stephen King has named "Nightcrawlers" as one of his ten favorite horror short stories of all time.

The Los Angeles Times hailed Rick's novel Usher's Passing with the blurb "King, Straub, and now Robert McCammon." This association has not always been good for Rick. He has been accused of being overly influenced by King and even trying to infringe on King and Straub's "territory"—a ridiculous idea to begin with, but one which has somehow lingered. All of these issues are discussed in the following interview.

"In the Light"
An Interview with Robert R. McCammon

Steve Spignesi: Let's start off with this: What were your thoughts upon hearing that your story "Nightcrawlers" was one of Stephen King's ten favorite horror stories of all time?

Robert McCammon: I didn't know that.

Steve Spignesi: For his collection How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction, Jerry Williamson asked a number of genre writers to contribute lists of their favorite stories and novels. Your story "Nightcrawlers" was included in King's Top Ten.

Robert McCammon: I've seen the book, but I didn't know that was in there. I think that's great. I think Stephen King is a fantastic writer. And I think his influence in the field is huge, and it's going to continue to be huge for a long time to come. It really makes me feel very good that he liked the story that much. I'm very pleased.

Steve Spignesi: How well do you know Stephen King?

Robert McCammon: We've met just briefly, and it was a long time ago. It was the sort of situation where I would have liked very much to have been able to say hello and talk, but he's always surrounded by people, so you can't really get a chance to spend much time with him.

I really don't know him, and I don't think he really knows me.

Steve Spignesi: Have you got a favorite King novel?

Robert McCammon: The Shining is definitely my favorite King novel.

Steve Spignesi: Why?

Robert McCammon: Because it is a brilliantly realized piece.

If somebody had said to me, "I'm going to write a four-hundred page novel that's basically about three people in a haunted house, and it will sustain your interest on every page, and it's going to be tight and great," I would have said, "Gee, that's kind of stretching it a bit, because with only three characters, you have some limitations."

But in The Shining, Stephen King is able to take those characters and create a fully-realized, fantastic world within the Overlook.

To me, the book is so tight and fresh. I think it's an incredibly keen vision of one man's mental breakdown, and how he's influenced by his past and how these evil spirits find the cracks in his soul and get to him through those cracks. It's so brilliantly done that it's definitely my favorite.

I think The Shining is the definitive haunted house horror novel. It's wonderful.

Steve Spignesi: What are your thoughts about his shorter work? Do you have any favorites among the short stories?

Robert McCammon: I think his shorter work is good but I really tend to like the novels better. I really like "Quitters, Inc." I enjoyed that one because it was kind of offbeat. I think that story is a good example of what King is famous for—taking an ordinary situation and giving it a very violent and strange twist. I think "Quitters, Inc." is a prime example of what he does best.

Steve Spignesi: What is horror? Where does it come from and what does it mean to you?

Robert McCammon: I think that that goes back to the question that people ask all horror writers: why do you write this stuff? And there was a time when I thought, well, people write horror because it's fun. But that's a very superficial answer.

I think it's something we feel. I think it's something that's inside us that we feel we have to get out—that we have to purge. I think horror writers, most of all, are really nice people, and I think a large part of that is because they're able to purge this kind of violence that is in us all.

I think that a lot of these people—myself included—are very lucky that we can write, because if we couldn't write, how would we get rid of these impulses? How would we get rid of these thoughts? How would we deal with all the things that we need to get out?

I think we're all pretty fortunate that we can get these things down on paper. I'm not really sure where it comes from. It may come from something in our childhood—something that happened to us ... I'm not really sure.

Steve Spignesi: What frightens you?

Robert McCammon: My biggest fear is being trapped in a particular situation and not being able to get out of it.

For instance, before I became a writer, I was working in a couple of real dead-end jobs, and I was in a situation where someone was over me, telling me what I could and couldn't do. I was working in the advertising department of a department store, and all I was doing was takings ads round to all the different departments and getting okays for the newspaper.

Basically I was told that this was all I could do, even though I wanted to write ad copy.

After I left that job, I worked on a newspaper on the copy desk for a very short time. I wanted to be a reporter, but I was told I couldn't be one. I was told I had to stay on the copy desk and write headlines. If I couldn't write—if I hadn't taken a chance and written Baal—I would probably be stuck there today.

You know what terrifies me? To have somebody sit over you like a dumb overlord who squats on your back, and says, "This is where you're going to remain for the rest of your life, and there's no escape." That, to me, is pretty bad.

Steve Spignesi: Who are your literary influences?

Robert McCammon: Ray Bradbury, for one. I grew up reading Bradbury, and I think his work is just great. As I go on, I'm beginning to see the influences of Bradbury more and more in my work.

Also, the old guys—Edgar Allan Poe in particular, because as a kid I really loved Poe. This was strange because at that time my friends were reading comic books and I was reading Edgar Allan Poe. His stuff seemed to strike a responsive chord in me.

I also read Edgar Rice Burroughs. I loved the Tarzan books and the "Mars" series.

I was also influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, though as much as by Poe and Burroughs. There are probably a lot of other people who influenced me as well, and I'm sure there are a lot of other things—even comic books—thrown into the stew that I'm not even aware of.

Steve Spignesi: It seems as though many of the so-called "name brand" horror writers today are approximately our age—mid-thirties to mid-forties or so—and you all seem to have been influenced by the same writers. I seem to be hearing over and over the same names when it comes to the writers the major names feel have influenced them.

Robert McCammon: Right.

Steve Spignesi: However, now I'm starting to see people who are telling me that Stephen King is now an influence. I find it interesting that King's contemporaries have been telling me that they have been influenced by the same guys that King read—Bradbury, Bloch, Poe, Matheson, etc. The younger generation of writers—writers in their mid-twenties or so—are now saying that Stephen King is their major influence. What are your thoughts on this development?

Robert McCammon: Well, I would have to say that Stephen King has influenced me, too. I think that's obvious.

I think because his books are everywhere, and also because he's such a fantastic writer, it would be very difficult to work in this field and not be influenced, in some way, by the King.

It would be almost impossible to work in a literary "vacuum," so to speak, and not have read King, not have admired his work, not have admired his vision of things and his craft, and the way he puts things together.

For a while there, everywhere you looked, you saw King's name. He was doing interviews, he was doing two books a year, he was doing short story collections—he was really flooding the field.

And frankly, it would be almost impossible to be working in the horror genre and not have somebody compare you to King—to have somebody say, "Oh, you want to be the next Stephen King," or, "You're as good as King," or, "You're not as good as King." Because that's just the standard. It's a very high standard, but Stephen King is the standard.

So, certainly, King has influenced me.

Steve Spignesi: So, Stephen King is horror's "long distance runner"?

Robert McCammon: Absolutely. And speaking of longevity, I find it interesting that every six or seven years, it seems there's a new wave of writers coming into the field of horror writing. Most of them will write one or two books and then they'll be gone, but there'll be a few who stick around, and they'll continue to work.

Steve Spignesi: How do you feel personally when you see a dustjacket blurb such as the one your publishers have used that reads "King, Straub, and now, McCammon"?

Robert McCammon: It's a way to sell books. And again, that strictly speaks to the power of Stephen King in the marketplace. You see that on a lot of people's books, and if there were somebody else that the publishers felt was very successful and had a huge readership, it would not be King's name on there, it would be Edith Schwartz's, or whomever. It's simply a marketing ploy. I appreciate it, but in some ways, it's a detriment because I think it can hurt a writer to say, "This person is going to be the next Stephen King," or, "This person writes like King," or anything along those lines.

Steve Spignesi: If you could rewrite any of your books, which would you choose?

Robert McCammon: I'd probably rewrite all of them. I'm never satisfied with them when I'm through—in fact, I can't stand to look at them when I get through with them because I can see all the seams and all the mistakes, and I end up thinking, God, why didn't I take care of that when I had a chance? So, I'd probably rewrite all of them. It's probably better that I usually don't even pick them up and look at them again.

Steve Spignesi: I have been known to cringe when I read through things I've written in the past.

Robert McCammon: Oh, yeah. Six months or a year after I've written something and it's out on the marketplace, I'll pick it up and kind of page through it—just to torture myself, I guess—and I'll instantly see something, and I'll say, "Oh God, that's awful. That sentence is awful. Why did I do that?"

But I think that kind of self-criticism is a good sign in a way because it's an indication that you've progressed beyond where you were when you write that book, which I think is very, very important.

Steve Spignesi: I do exactly the same thing with my first book. I open it up and almost start editing it.

Robert McCammon: Yeah, I know what you mean. And that can be a maddening thing to do, and it's probably not good to do because I really think that when you write a book you do the best can at the time. You do the very best that you can at the time, and then you've got to put it aside and move on. And if you look back at that book years later and you cringe, then you've just got to accept that as a fact.

Steve Spignesi: You're an extremely visual writer. Reading your stuff is true "skull cinema": it's like watching a movie in your head.

Robert McCammon: Well, that's good, because that's what I want to do.

Steve Spignesi: Do you watch a lot of TV, and/or movies?

Robert McCammon: No, I don't, although I tend to plan out scenes visually, because I really do think of writing as creating a movie in your mind. I think a writer does the casting and the lighting and the sets and the costumes and everything else as well. I think it's more a matter of detail—of throwing in detail when and where you need it to highlight particular things in the scene.

That's always appealed to me. The visual quality of fiction always appeals to me, and that in particular is what appeals to me about King's work—right down to the roses in the carpet of the Overlook: you can see them, I can see them, and I can also feel that carpet. That's what I really like about Steve's work, and that's what appeals to me about any good writer's work—that you can see it, that you can walk through it and be there, and it's immediate.

Steve Spignesi: Have you read much of King's later stuff?

Robert McCammon: Some. I probably don't read as much now as I used to. The last King novel I read was The Tommyknockers.

Steve Spignesi: What'd you think?

Robert McCammon: I think it's a great idea, but I think it was overwritten. I read that King has said of himself that he has a tendency to spill his guts and let everything come out. I think the idea was super, but I got tired of reading. It wore me out. I ended up just sort of plodding through to get to the end. But I think the idea was very, very good.

Steve Spignesi: Did you know about the Richard Bachman pseudonym?

Robert McCammon: Yes, I did.

Steve Spignesi: How'd you find out?

Robert McCammon: To me, it was obvious. NAL had given a super advance to this relative unknown named Richard Bachman.

Steve Spignesi: And how did you hear about the advance?

Robert McCammon: I read about it in Publishers Weekly. I read that New American Library was giving this super huge advance to "Richard Bachman"—whom I had never heard of before—for a book called Thinner.

I remember I was at the ABA convention, and I saw this NAL promotional literature for Thinner, and the first thing that came into my mind was, why are they giving this guy this huge amount of money to compete with Stephen King? It's the same house. Why are they going to do this? Then I realized that this was a steam valve.

If The Talisman didn't do well, then they were to release Thinner and say it wasn't King. The Talisman was a gamble. I think the pseudonym idea was a steam valve, but I also think it was a brilliant thing that somebody put together.

I went up to one of the salespeople at the NAL booth and asked her, "Is Richard Bachman Stephen King?" and she looked at me and said, "No!", and laughed. But I knew it.

Steve Spignesi: So, you became aware of the connection with Thinner, which was 1985. Had you been aware of the Bachman paperback originals prior to that?

Robert McCammon: No. I had never heard the name before.

So, when I saw this huge advance being given to somebody I had never heard of, and from the same house, and I saw that the novel was written in the same style ... well, my goodness, it wasn't too difficult to see right through them.

NAL was giving away promo copies, so I got one, and there was King's style all over the place: the italics, the parenthetical asides, the interior dialogue. And I thought, well, if this isn't King, this guy is going to get into a lot of trouble for ripping off Stephen King's style.

Steve Spignesi: I love the Literary Guild Magazine's one-line "review" of Thinner. The reviewer said, "Thinner is what Stephen King would write like if Stephen King could write."

Robert McCammon: (Laughs.) Oh, really? I think the creation of "Richard Bachman" was a very smart move, but to me it was obvious. But it worked.

Steve Spignesi: What are your thoughts on being called a splatterpunk? What does that "literary movement" mean to you, and do you like being considered one?

Robert McCammon: It really doesn't matter to me.

What we're basically talking about here is an abundance of gore and violence and gut-slashing—the kind of graphic tone and style that was spearheaded by Clive Barker.

I don't think I write that way. I have done some work that is in that genre, but I don't like labeling—even though in this profession, we're going to label things.

There's quiet horror, there's psychological horror, and then there's splatterpunk. It doesn't matter to me because I think there's room for different "schools," and I also think there's an audience for everything.

It certainly doesn't offend me. I don't pick up the splatterpunk work and say this is the most horrible thing and should be banned. I think some of it is very, very good, and I really enjoy it. But I enjoy any good writing. And it seems to me that if violence and gore are necessary in the story, then it's fine. I see no problems with it at all.

Steve Spignesi: Some of King's more recent short stories—"The Night Flier" and "Home Delivery" immediately come to mind—have been pretty graphic. Do you think he might be responding to the splatterpunker's tendency to be more "overt," to show more blood and guts, so to speak?

Robert McCammon: I think every author should try to do different things, and it may be that King is not going to necessarily stay with psychological horror and he's not going to necessarily stay with a splatterpunk story, but I do think it's good for all writers to try different things.

I'm working on a short story now called "Dark Eye" that I think is very graphic—but I think it adds to the story.

My next novel will probably be a psychological novel, and it won't be graphic at all. There may be some graphic scenes, but the whole tone is not going to be graphic.

I think it's to the benefit of the author to go back and forth and not do one particular type of novel and by typecase as doing only splatterpunk, or doing only psychological horror, or whatever.

Steve Spignesi: I think Swan Song is a masterwork.

Robert McCammon: Well, thank you, I appreciate it—but I hope it's not a masterwork, though, because when you say "masterwork," it usually means it was the cap of your career.

Steve Spignesi: Well, then, I consider it a major work, and it's my personal favorite of your novels. Now, I'm not telling you anything new when I tell you that people have compared it to The Stand.

Robert McCammon: Absolutely.

Steve Spignesi: And some of them have come down hard on you for supposedly "ripping off" Stephen King. What is your response to this kind of criticism?

Robert McCammon: Well, first of all, I think that Stephen King's fans are extremely loyal. He has legions of loyal fans. And if these legions of fans feel that somebody is kind of treading on King's territory, they're gonna jump hard.

Somebody once wrote me a letter about treading on King and Straub's turf—but not for Swan Song. They were criticizing me for Usher's Passing.

I took the heat for Swan Song because there was a disaster involved on a worldwide scale. I kept saying "Mine is a nuclear disaster and King's was a plague," but it didn't seem to make any difference.

Their thinking was, "It's still a disaster—and Stephen King has written the ultimate disaster novel, so therefore anything from The Stand on has no validity." I just had to do the best I could do at the time.

Steve Spignesi: How conscious were you of The Stand when you were writing Swan Song?

Robert McCammon: I was very aware of The Stand, and that made writing Swan Song difficult because I had had this idea about a nuclear holocaust novel for several years.

It was hard—with The Stand out there—to realize that what I wanted to do had to do with a disaster, and that it also had to do with a demonic force that was roaming the country reveling in this ultimate disaster.

I knew that when the book came out I was gonna get slammed. But I'd had this idea and it was a good idea, and if I didn't do it, then what would that be saying? So I felt like I could take the heat, and it really has not been as bad as I thought it might be. I've gotten a few letters, but generally people really like the book, and most readers do seem to understand that the disaster is different.

Steve Spignesi: What were the last books you read?

Robert McCammon: I recently read The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy, Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, and Koko, by Peter Straub. Basically I read a lot of biographies and a lot of histories and non-fiction. I cut down on my reading of fiction when I'm working because I really don't want to be influenced or swayed in any way.

Steve Spignesi: Speaking of being influenced, Douglas E. Winter, the author of Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, has, on occasion, been a bit hard on you in print. In an interview I did with Doug for The Shape Under the Sheet, he said, "Rick McCammon is a talented and energetic writer whose fiction unfortunately, and intentionally or not, seems to mine a lot of Steve King's work." Do you think his accusations are justified or unjustified, and what is your response to his assertions?

Robert McCammon: Oh, I think that Winter's justified. I think that I have been influenced by Stephen King to a great extent, and probably more so than I should have been. I think I'm working out of that now. As I said, I think it's very difficult to be in this genre and not see King everywhere, and when people compare me to King, it makes it even more difficult. But then again, that can work both ways because if people are comparing me to King, then the thinking sometimes goes, well, maybe I am doing good.

But King's fans get very upset when that happens because they don't really want anyone to be compared to King. And Doug Winter is a loyal King fan.

Steve Spignesi: That brings up an interesting question. What is the perception—by his fellow horror writers—of Stephen King as an influence on the market?

Robert McCammon: I think there's an under-current in the field that King is so huge that lot of very, very good writers don't get much of a chance.

Steve Spignesi: Is it envy?

Robert McCammon: I'm not sure if it's envy as much as it recognition that if somebody goes into a bookstore with five dollars and they're interested in horror fiction, they're going to buy a Stephen King book. Out of the whole shelf of people who do this type of writing, they're going to buy a King book.

I can understand the reasons for that because King is really such a fantastic writer. There are other really good writers in the field, but King is just wonderful. I do think, though, that his later work is overloaded just a bit. I really like his early work better, but that's neither here nor there.

It interests me that King is not working as much as he has been, and that when he slacked off a bit, Dean Koontz became very popular. Dean was not popular when King was in his greatest heyday.

King has been such a huge force that there's really been very little room for anybody else to get anywhere.

What really helped Clive Barker was that King said Clive was "the future of horror." That really helped Clive. If Stephen King had said, "I don't like Clive Barker," where would Clive be today? It's an interesting situation, it really is.

Steve Spignesi: Do you agree with the theory that horror runs in cycles—that horror fiction and films are only popular in the good times because society needs a focus for its fears?

Robert McCammon: Yeah, that's probably true. And it's certainly true that people would rather have light entertainment when their lives are in bad shape.

On a deep level, I think horror fiction may be trying to say something about humanity—it may be trying to say something about people. But, basically, I think most people read it as an entertainment, as an escape, as a way to channel aggressions, and as a way to come to grips with some of their fears. I think most people read horror for fun.

It's kind of like going to the amusement park and riding on a rollercoaster that you know is going to scare the hell out of you, but you want to do it because you enjoy it.

Steve Spignesi: It's a safe threat.

Robert McCammon: it's a safe threat, because you can always close the book and put it away.

Steve Spignesi: What are your thoughts on the film adaptations of King's stories?

Robert McCammon: I think the reason why the "Stephen King" movies haven't been successful is because King's work is already so visual and so great as it is between the cover: it's already there, and anything a director does is not going to be as good.

I think the detail is there, and the great visual qualities are already there for you to see in your mind, and so seeing it on film is a letdown.

Steve Spignesi: Specific failures?

Robert McCammon: "The Shining." Of course, I would say "The Shining."

I remember watching "The Shining" with a friend of mine who said, "Boy, I really thought that was a good movie." And I said, "Have you read the book?" and he hadn't and that's why he liked it. Maybe it was a good movie for somebody who hadn't read the book, but if you read the novel and really get into that world, then the movie, of course, would be a disappointment.

Regarding the others, I thought "The Dead Zone" was probably better than most.

Steve Spignesi: I enjoyed "Stand By Me."

Robert McCammon: Yes, but that was a totally different thing.

I've noticed that movies with King's name on them haven't done very well, so they consciously downplayed King's involvement with "Stand By Me." It seemed like they were saying, "This is not a horror piece and we don't want people to even think it's a horror piece, so let's bury King's name in the credits somewhere"—which was a smart move.

Steve Spignesi: How about your stories? If I were you, I'd be trembling in my boots over what Hollywood might do to your work.

Robert McCammon: Yeah, I know, I know.

Steve Spignesi: Have you sold any of the film rights?

Robert McCammon: Yes. Somebody's already done the script for They Thirst, but it was so terrible, it probably won't get done.

Steve Spignesi: You had final approval?

Robert McCammon: Yeah, but it's still floating around.

I don't care really about the film versions, though. My child is the book, and I feel that as long as I'm creating a modest, decent child, then that's fine with me.

If something gets made into a movie, fine, but I think it might just as easily be a disaster.

I'd hate for the day to come when I could say, "Yeah, they made a movie out of one of my books ... but don't go see it!" (Laughs.)

People are always asking me, "When are you going to have a movie made out of one of your books?" I tell them, "I've already made a movie. The movies are in the pages, and you see the movie in your mind."

Steve Spignesi: You had to be pleased with "Nightcrawlers," though.

Robert McCammon: I was very pleased with that. "Twilight Zone" did a very good job, and William Friedkin did a great job directing. That was exciting.

Steve Spignesi: We talked about fans and their perception of their "heroes" a while back, and it occurred to me that I hadn't asked you what you thought of Misery?

Robert McCammon: Misery seems to me to be a scream of "I'd like to do another kind of writing, but my fans want me to continue to do horror novels."

Steve Spignesi: I've done several "favorite novel and story" surveys for this book, and "The Body" was almost always one of the top three favorite King stories. It seems that the fans might accept other types of writing from "The King," don't you think?

Robert McCammon: But "The Body" is a novella. I wonder what the reaction would be if King were to do an entirely different type of novel? I wonder what his fans' reaction would be then? I think that maybe he would like to do that,but that he might feel that he's not being allowed to.

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