The Horror Show, Spring 1987
Since the last time I interviewed Robert R. McCammon (for the Summer 1985 Horror Show) his career has skyrocketed. One of his stories was dramatized on CBS's now-in-limbo Twilight Zone series, and a new novel, Swan Song, looks to be the horror blockbuster of this coming summer, plus he has completed another work, Stinger, due out in 1988—and more TV projects are underway. It seems certain that this is the year of McCammon.
Swan Song is a grim, though ultimately hopeful and revelatory, book spanning some 956 pages, and chronicles the lives of a small group of survivors of World War II. The novel is draining on all levels, and is guaranteed to make McCammon the focus of much attention.
THS: How did you feel—emotionally, physically—on that final day of the actual writing?
McCAMMON: I felt relieved, exhilarated, and drained in about equal measures. Relieved that the work was done, exhilarated that my concept had fit together and come out pretty much as I'd wanted, and drained because writing Swan Song was a very emotional experience. I felt as if I knew all those characters; I felt as if they were real people, and leaving them at the end of the last page, after all I'd been through with them, saddened me. But I was certainly glad to finish the book, no doubt about it!
THS: The main characters in Swan Song—a bag lady. a professional wrestler, a girl with strange powers, a shape-shifting lunatic—are an unlikely group, yet no less real in spite of it. Was the decision to employ wildly contrasting characters a conscious one?
McCAMMON: I didn't consciously decide to use wildly contrasting characters, in as much as I wanted to come up with people who seemed real and—at least in the characters of Josh and Sister—cut off from a vital part of who they really were. To all appearances, both Josh and Sister were certain types, yet deep down they were not who they appeared to be at all. I think that's probably true of Roland Croninger and Swan as well—now that I think about it, probably all the major characters of Swan Song share that quality: they are not who they appear to be. And maybe the question of identity—of personal rebirth—is at the center of Swan Song even more than the nuclear holocaust
THS: I recall that in our previous interview of two years ago you remarked that you never used an outline while writing a novel, but, given the length and complexity of Swan Song, didn't you require one?
McCAMMON: No, I didn't use an outline on Swan Song. I simply went on instinct, following the different paths until they connected.
THS: But there must have been a lot of technical research involved. Your creation of Earth House, a self-sustaining underground survivalist stronghold, seemed very realistic to me, the sort of place that might actually exist somewhere.
McCAMMON: Yes, there was a lot of technical and "hardware" research. Earth House, for instance, is not a real place, but there are plans on the drawing boards for "survivalist condominiums" that serve basically the same function. I did a tremendous amount of reading, everything from The Fate of the Earth to technical manuals on nuclear submarines. I had begun my research on Swan Song and had started writing the book back in '83, but had put it aside because I wasn't up to the task. But my research continued, and I got a chance to go to Washington and do reading and research there as well. The technical manuals are the stuff that can turn your brains to jelly, but if you need missile loads on Delta II-class Soviet submarines, for instance, you've got to keep slogging.
THS: Did you find it necessary to make use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain material?
McCAMMON: No, I didn't. But I'm aware now that some of my ideas about the United States satellite network were pretty much on the mark, as well as speculation that a global nuclear holocaust would most likely begin in a Third World country and escalate by the use of sea power.
Listen, I feel like a walking encyclopedia of military facts and figures, and I probably used about a tenth of my research to get the ball rolling in Swan Song.
THS: Did you personally harbor a great deal of anxiety over the possibility of World War III, and do you think a nuclear war might break out in this century?
McCAMMON: I have anxiety concerning the use of a nuclear device by terrorists or the leader of a Third World country who loses sight of the global repercussions. It's not difficult to make an atomic bomb anymore—in fact, it's pretty easy if you can get the fission material. And these days it seems like everything's available for a price, so why not the plutonium?
I'm sure that somewhere in the world, right now, a terrorist organization is trying to get its hands on material to make an atomic device—and I'm not sure they won't get it by the end of this decade. As I say in Swan Song, we have a love affair with fire, and I fear a lot of people are going to get burned. No, not just that: consumed.
THS: As I was reading Swan Song, white noise suddenly came over my radio, followed by a man's voice shouting, "There's been a nuclear attack! Most of the city's been devastated!" I didn't know whether to scream or pass out—my fault for liking weird radio. Do you think your book (and others like it) can attune people more closely to the cataclysmal horror of nuclear annihilation than say, PBS documentaries?
McCAMMON: On that, I'm not sure. I've always believed in the power of the written word, and I think books can envelope the reader in a way no other media can, but I don't know. We see so much horror everyday—does that dilute the message of horror? Does living under the gun, with a nervous finger on the trigger, mean that people forget the gun is poised? I certainly don't, but I think a lot of people do, and that's probably for the sake of their mental health. People, by and large, just cannot deal with the reality of a nuclear holocaust; it seems like something faraway and remote, and I think it would take a lot of interconnecting factors to make it happen, but living under the bomb's shadow has seemed to take some of the hope and spirit away from mankind.
Yes, the atomic bomb has probably deterred a lot of brushfire wars, but just its presence and horrible possibility has caused a long-term nervous breakdown of society.
THS: Since writing Swan Song was a grueling experience, will you ever wish to tackle another novel as large and serious?
McCAMMON: Yes. Definitely.
THS: On another note. I'm curious what you thought of William (Exorcist) Friedkin's treatment of your story "Nightcrawlers," dramatized for the Twilight Zone series? Will you be involved in future TV projects?
McCAMMON: I hope I will. It seems much more satisfying. See, I think what we call "horror fiction" has a tremendous potential to light up the dark corners. I believe in God, I'm a Christian, and I writhe when some clown starts mouthing the term "born-again"; that used to be a phrase of hope, and now it's used to jerk puppet strings. I think "horror fiction" can do great things, in clarifying the definition of evil and showing how people either struggle against consumption of the soul or give up to it And I don't mean Just "evil" in the sense of demonic forces or any outward thing, but "evil" also as a chilling of the spirit or hardening of the heart, or anything that makes one human being think of himself as better or more deserving or more righteous than another.
I think William Friedkin did an excellent job with "Nightcrawlers." It's amazing to see your characters in motion and hear sentences you've written come out of their mouths. To see the set and know the lengths and expenses the production crew has gone to ... well, it's really a tremendous experience.
THS: Has Hollywood, in the wake of "Nightcrawlers," been in touch, and have you ever considered writing for the screen?
McCAMMON: Yes. There are some other projects in the works. I've been approached about writing for the screen and have declined. My joy is working in solitude, in my office. I don't think I'd like to write by committee, which is basically what screenwriting entails. I'm happy doing what I do now, so why change it?
THS: Have you completed another novel since Swan Song?
McCAMMON: Yes. My next novel, Stinger, will be out sometime in '88.
THS: What do you think when you hear accusations from critics that some recent horror fiction is nihilistic. defeatist, pornographic and thus unethical (the same charges brought against the New Wave movement in SF some years ago)? Is it even possible for horror fiction to be unethical?
McCAMMON: Nothing is unethical if it stimulates the mind. I don't think it's possible for any fiction that operates on a cerebral level to be unethical. Of course, horror fiction goes for the emotions too, but I think the best horror fiction—and the best fiction, period—is a combination of mental and emotional stimulation. One without the other is very often flat and uninteresting.
THS: Publisher-author John Maclay once told me that, if people object to the depiction of horror and violence then they should be ready to remove the real horrors from the world. What's your reaction to that statement?
McCAMMON: Horror and violence in the real world is very different from horror and violence in books and movies. If people object to the depiction of horror and violence, they are objecting to shadows and disregarding the reality; of course, it's much easier to demand censorship of books and movies than to grapple with the complex factors of real life, and that's one of the things that distresses me most: people are losing their courage to face up to reality. Certain groups will protest all day over things that don't matter a bit, and then they'll cower before issues that are vital to our culture and survival. Our politicians and "leaders"—ha!—are the most cowardly of the lot.
THS: My next question is one I hate; however, I'm sure someone out there will want me to ask it. What do you say to those who demand a "justification" for your writing horror fiction?
McCAMMON: I write horror fiction because that's my voice. Different people may hear different things in that voice, and maybe that's how it should be. But horror fiction is so much more than screaming demons and bloody skulls, and I've unfortunately learned that publishers are the worst culprits in defining what horror fiction is: they limit its impact by limiting its market by limiting its promotion to a certain reader. "The broadest common denominator" is the way they'll term it, I think. Publishers can't see beyond the supermarket racks for the future of horror fiction, and that distresses me too. We have been sold out by the quick-buck writers, and the schlock film makers and the gore masters. From here, I'm afraid it's an uphill climb. But maybe it's the fate and credit of horror fiction to always be the outsider, looking in, no matter how strong a message it tries to carry.
THS: Have any more publishers told you that "horror fiction is dying" since our last interview?
McCAMMON: No. They've all slunk into their corners and are chewing on their words.
THS: In these days of news programs broadcasting unflinching video footage of a Pennsylvania politician shooting himself through the mouth, the space shuttle exploding, people plunging to their deaths from a burning hotel, can the horror story serve any purpose beyond entertainment? Should it?
McCAMMON: We saw those things happen on television, but we didn't know those people. The grace of fiction is that it brings the reader into communion with the characters and their world. The horror story can integrate us into other lives and other worlds; we can live a million lives and know a million worlds, and hopefully our senses and emotions and imaginations are touched in a way that we can take with us into our own, real world. I don't think the horror tale always has to be dark, nor does it have to be cold, nor should it always have a bleak ending. In fact, I'm more of a "happy ending" person myself—or, at least, an ending that gives a sense of hope and of a positive future. Not that it won't be a tough struggle, and not that the characters won't go through torment to get there, but I like to believe we will attain our dreams if we keep fighting for them."
Author William J. Grabowski has just launched Oblivion Press, a new independent publishing house. This interview is reprinted here with his permission.