Rocky Mountain News, September 20, 2002
Title: Speaks the Nightbird
Author: Robert McCammon
Publisher: River City Publishing
Our Rating: A
McCammon delightfully dark as everBy Mark Graham, Special To The News
September 20, 2002
In the 1980s, Stephen King was already a publishing phenomenon, and the popularity of supernatural horror was at its zenith. Dozens of writers had ridden King's coattails to a modicum of success. Only a handful came close to King in terms quality or public acceptance.
Among these, Robert McCammon—whose 1,000-plus page magnum opus Swan Song remains, along King's The Stand, as the epitome of what modern dark fantasy is all about—was considered by many to be the best. But after a string of best sellers (including Wolf's Hour, Mine and Gone South), McCammon just stopped writing.
One of the major publishing events of 2002 is McCammon's return. Speaks the Nightbird should not only appeal to those familiar with the author's previous horror novels, but to readers of mainstream fiction, as well.
This tale of witchcraft and betrayal set in 17th century Carolina demonstrates that a decade's hiatus has done nothing to dull McCammon's abilities as a storyteller or a literary craftsman.
Shipping magnate Robert Bidwell's hopes of realizing his utopian dream by creating Fount Royal, a shipping and agricultural center to rival Charles Town, seem cursed when two violent murders are followed by disastrous weather, crop failures and the continual desertion of the town by its inhabitants.
Some of the townspeople claim that they have seen the widow of one of the murdered men in congress with the devil, and the logical conclusion is that Rachel Howarth, a dusky beauty of Portuguese descent, is a witch, and that the calamities that are destroying Fount Royal are her doing. The only thing that keeps the citizens from burning her on the spot is that Bidwell is adamant that mob rule will not prevail, and his city must abide by the law.
The first magistrate sent from Charles Town to try the accused witch never shows up. Unbeknownst to Bidwell, he was murdered by a homicidal innkeeper along the way. After narrowly escaping the same fate, Isaac Woodward and his clerk Matthew finally arrive.
The aged Woodward is an expert in the British system of jurisprudence, strictly following the letter of the law and the fundamental principles of Puritan Christianity. Matthew, on the other hand, rescued by Isaac from an orphan home, is much more open-minded and is doubtful about the existence of witchcraft. During his unfortunate youth, the clerk has seen little evidence of God and knows that most evil comes from human rather than diabolical hands. Thus, he feels more pragmatic explanations to the murders and Fount Royal's problems may be found.
Young Matthew has never seen a woman as beautiful as Rachel, and, though he tries to deny it, he is immediately attracted to her. Yet, from hearing about similar trials, including the ones at Salem, he knows that saving her will be close to impossible.
To complicate matters further, in an altercation, he injures the town blacksmith, and is sentenced to three days in the town jail. Those three days in close proximity to Rachel convince him of her innocence, at the same time that the magistrate, after hearing the testimonies of witnesses, is persuaded of her guilt.
After his release, with less than three days to save the woman he loves, Matthew begins an investigation that would have made Sherlock Holmes proud.
At the same time, should he fail, he prepares to help Rachel escape and take her across miles of swamp and forest, infested by Indians and wild animals, to the safety of Florida.
In his investigation, he discovers that quite a few folks will benefit from Rachel's demise. Fount Royal, it seems, is a nest of secret depravity. And the burning of a "witch" will divert the attention from embezzlers, sodomites and pedophiles, among others.
In Speaks the Nightbird, McCammon succeeds on many levels.
The author's careful research makes the historical and geographical aspects come alive. Matthew's use of deductive reasoning creates a fine detective story. The author uses Fount Royal as a microcosm for an exposť into the dark side of human nature.
And the protagonist's quandary between his loyalty and friendship to his mentor on the one hand and his devotion to his newfound love and justice on the other makes for a conflict that will keep readers glued to the pages.
One can only hope that ten years is a long-enough vacation. It's time for McCammon to get to work on the next novel.
Mark Graham is an English teacher at Ralston Valley High School in Arvada. His Unreal Worlds reviews run weekly in Weekend@Home.