This review of Robert McCammon's Speaks the Nightbird is by Wayne C. Rogers
for the Horror World web site.
Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon
US River City Publishing, 2002, 729pp., $27.95.ISBN: 1-880216-62-0
Review by Wayne C. Rogers
What I find difficult to understand is not the sheer craftsmanship that it took for Robert McCammon to write Speaks the Nightbird, but that he was unable to find a big publishing house to buy his novel when it was first written several years ago. All of his previous publishers passed on the book, believing that because it wasn't a horror novel, the sales would be low. It's no wonder the author decided to stop writing for so many years. Thankfully for his fans, Mr. McCammon eventually found a small, independent publisher in Alabama who was more than willing to take on the challenge, and let's hope this book sells a million copies.
The story of Speaks the Nightbird begins in 1699 when Magistrate Isaac Woodward and his clerk, Matthew Corbett, are called forth to travel from Charles Town to the relatively new community of Fount Royal (which is on the coast of the Carolinas) to investigate the accusations of witchcraft and murder against Rachel Howarth. She has been accused of viciously killing her own husband, Daniel, and the Reverend Grove, not to mention being sexually intimate with the Devil. The town's people also hold her responsible for the swift demise of the community: diseases, fires, crop failures, and the exodus of its inhabitants. After a turbulent trip that comes close to costing them their lives, Magistrate Woodward and Matthew arrive at Fount Royal, only to find that the town's people are ready to lynch the beautiful witch. Woodward has to use the power of his position to make the citizens back down and to allow a fair trial to take place before any harm is inflicted upon the woman. The pressure for a quick trial is soon felt. As the witnesses are called forth during the days ahead, each one describes in explicit detail how they saw Mrs. Howarth in the throes of intimacy with her dark Master. Woodward's been a magistrate long enough to know the difference between a person who's outright lying and someone who's telling the truth, and he happens to believe each of the witnesses. Matthew, however, begins to suspect that there's an evil manipulator behind the scenes—someone who's pulling the strings of the local town's people, intent on destroying Fount Royal and making Rachel the scapegoat to divert attention from his self-serving plans. When Rachel is finally sentenced to burn at the stake, Matthew's left with only a few days to prove her innocence and to find out the true identity of the real murderer.
Unlike Robert McCammon's earlier work in the horror genre, Speaks the Nightbird is a historical novel of grand proportions that delves into the hardships of day-to-day living in Colonial America, along with the fears and superstitions that caused so many people to act savagely against those around them. The author draws such a vivid picture of the time period that you can feel the dirt, the pestilence, the thousands of rats that inhabit the town, the evil that lurks just beneath the thin veneer of respectability, and the sexual perversity that hungers for release. I mean think of the local blacksmith and the love he has for his favorite mare, Lucy! As Mr. McCammon leads us by the hand into this desolate world of the 17th Century, he creates a murder mystery of such complexity that you're kept on your toes for the last three hundred pages in a futile effort to guess whom the killer really is. I couldn't help but find myself delighted at the multitude of characters that were created within the story—characters that come alive with their own sense of uniqueness and hidden agendas and made me feel as though each one was capable of the most heinous acts. In fact, it wasn't long before I realized that nearly everyone in the town had something to hide and a strong reason for wanting Rachel to be convicted of witchcraft. Of course, it's Matthew Corbett who's the real star of this novel as he quickly makes the journey into manhood, trusting his own instincts for discovering the truth and refusing to give up when faced with the impossible, believing in the power of justice and love. But, is he strong enough to take on the whole town and risk being burned at the stake with the woman who's stolen his heart? Read the book and found out!
Speaks the Nightbird is a true masterpiece of literary fiction that's filled with nail-biting suspense and hard-hitting intrigue. This is the kind of novel that's sure to keep you up till the wee hours of the morning, turning the pages in a frenzy to find out what happens next. My only hope is that Robert McCammon will once again return to the arena of writing. He's simply too talented of an author to call it quits for good.