Review: ‘Stinger’ by Robert McCammon

Stinger by Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press (October 2015)

StingerSubIn Stinger, Robert McCammon spins the relatively straightforward tale of a benevolent alien who crash lands in the small Texas town of Inferno. Unfortunately for that alien, and for the citizens of Inferno, there’s a second alien in pursuit of the first; a bounty hunter with far more aggressive tendencies. This simple storyline unfolds across one 24-hour period, and yet it takes McCammon more than 600 pages to tell his story.

Bloated? Padded? Not in the slightest, and shame on you for even entertaining the thought. This is epic, apocalyptic storytelling on a small scale. No, 600 pages is not small, but by narrowing his focus to one event in one location, McCammon leaves himself plenty of room to build a vivid cast of characters who are in way over their heads, while life-changing (and potentially world-changing) consequenes hang in the balance.

McCammon has long been known as a horror writer, a label he’s struggled with throughout his career. There are certainly horrific elements in Stinger (the bounty hunter is very, um, goal-oriented, and is not afraid to leave a fair amount of human carnage in its wake), but the book leans heavily toward sci-fi. Much like his recent novel The Border, McCammon uses
those sci-fi trappings not to induce awe and wonder, but terror and dread, making Stinger the kind of hybrid that will leave fans of both genres with plenty to be happy about.

stingerpaperbackAnother surprise in a book this size? The blistering pace. Again, let me draw a favorable comparison to The Border, which clocked in at nearly 500 pages that absolutely flew by. Even early in his career (Stinger was originally published in 1988), McCammon was a master at seamlessly weaving plot advancement and character building. There are many compelling characters with interesting side-stories in Stinger – the two young leaders of opposing gangs; the PTSD-suffering war veteran; the alcoholic father; the ineffectual sheriff, to name just a few – and when McCammon wanders off the path to examine their situations more closely, I doubt you’ll mind at all.

But it’s not all diversion and introspection. McCammon also knows how to write the big set pieces, and there is carnage a-plenty to be found in Stinger. The bounty hunter’s methods of travel and disguise are destructive to buildings and bodies alike. The town of Inferno, quivering on the edge of financial ruin at the book’s beginning, is literally in ruins by the book’s end.

In Stinger, McCammon strikes a near-perfect balance between B-Movie thrills and more serious themes. Kudos to Subterranean Press for adding this to their long list of resurrected, refurbished McCammon classics.

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Review: ‘Blue World’ by Robert McCammon

Blue World by Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press (August 2015)

Blue_World_by_Robert_McCammonOver the last few years Subterranean Press has gotten heavily into the Robert McCammon business – and cousin, business is a-boomin’. In addition to releasing new works like The Border, they’ve been steadily reissuing the author’s back catalog, bringing us gorgeous new editions of books like The Wolf’s Hour and Stinger. Blue World is their latest McCammon reissue, a new edition of his only short story collection to which they’ve added three previously uncollected stories.

The bulk of the stories in Blue World are horror, and revisiting them makes it easy to see why McCammon drew so many comparisons to Stephen King early in his career. Blue World feels like a spiritual companion to King’s first short story collection, Night Shift, with both featuring short tales that exploit their respective author’s influences while reshaping those influences in each writer’s own unique fashion. Throughout the course of his book, McCammon tackles and twists such classic horror tropes as the outsider learning that the surface perfection of his new community hides something dark and sinister (“He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door”); the lifting of the veil between the living and the dead on Halloween night (“Strange Candy”); and the madness that might be waiting for survivors of an apocalypse (“I Scream Man!”).

McCammon has always been adept at more than horror, and this collection is a fine showcase for some stories that fall just outside of the genre. An example is “Night Calls the Green Falcon,” my personal favorite of the collection, which follows a lonely, forgotten actor from an old serial who comes out of “retirement” to catch a serial killer. McCammon constructs the story just like one of those old chapter plays, complete with cliffhangers, perfectly capturing the spirit of the serials the Green Falcon was famous for. There’s a sense of melancholy in the story, that thing we all feel as we realize that time is passing us by, but it’s counterbalanced by the idea that, sometimes, we can reach out and grab some of that old glory and excitement if we just have the guts to try.

Really, the only story I had issue with in this entire collection is the novella it’s named after. “Blue World” ventures outside the horror realm to tell a very grounded, personal story of redemption. In it, a priest gives in to temptation and falls in love with a porn star; that same porn star is beginning to question her direction in life, and hopes that the man she’s taken up with – a man she doesn’t know is a priest – will be the one to help change her luck. Meanwhile, an obsessed fan is stalking them both with deadly intent. This is McCammon really trying to stretch his wings, and while it works in places it’s not, for me, completely successful. There’s a disconnect there; it feels like McCammon liked the idea enough to pursue it, but didn’t have the strong personal connection to it that makes so much of his work so powerful.

Subterranean Press is releasing Blue World at the perfect time, as it’s truly a trick-or-treat bag full of classic short scares that will get you in the mood for the impending Halloween season. If you’ve let this one get by you in the 25 years (!) since its original release, here’s your chance at redemption.

2014: The Year in Reading

Cover design2014 was another in a long line of good reading years for yours truly. It wasn’t exactly full of surprises; if you compare this year’s list of favorites to that of previous years, you’ll see a lot of duplication: Ace Atkins, Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, and Robert McCammon are among the most common denominators. Atkins, King and Lansdale together dominate this year’s list, contributing two books each. That’s not something that will necessarily change in the coming year: Atkins will be bringing new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series; King has a new novel (a follow-up to this year’s Mr. Mercedes) on deck, as well as a new short story collection; and Lansdale has a new Hap and Leonard book on the horizon. Factor in Clive Barker’s Pinhead/Harry D’Amour novel The Scarlet Gospels and I can damn near give you my top ten for 2015 right here and now.

All of these familiar faces may make it seem like I’m in a rut, but that’s far from the truth. I found several new authors in 2014 that I’m going to be watching closely in the future, Nick Cutter chief among them. His debut novel The Troop was narrowly edged out of this year’s top ten; I was lucky enough to get an early copy of his second novel, The Deep (which comes out on January 13) and that one made the cut – I’ll be posting a review early next week that explains why. I was also deeply impressed by Jedidiah Ayres and Mark Morris and several others that I’ll be reading from here on out.

ForsakenCoverOne thing I’ve always struggled with is ranking these year-end lists in any kind of order. Traditionally I’ve gone numbers one through ten, but this year I abandoned that concept. It’s just too hard to pick one favorite out of this group. So, this year’s list is ordered alphabetically by author, and as I look back on it now I see ten books that I’ll happily revisit in the future.

Here are the books that sunk their hooks deep in my brain in 2014. I hope you’ll take a moment to share your own favorites in the comments – I’m always looking for suggestions for something good to read!

Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
The Deep by Nick Cutter
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Revival by Stephen King
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris

And here, if you’re interested, is the complete list of what I read this year:

pwoodUndisputed by Chris Jericho
And the Night Growled Back by Aaron Dries
Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece by Jason Bailey
Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road by Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, J.F. Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Nate Southard, Shane McKenzie, Ryan Harding and Bryan Smith
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The Way of All Flesh by Tim Waggoner
Horror Library Volume 5 edited by R.J. Cavender and Boyd E. Harris
Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz
Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Wonderland by Ace Atkins
City of Devils by Justin Robinson
The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Joe Ledger: Special Ops by Jonathan Maberry
Rose of Sharon and Other Stories by Gary A. Braunbeck
The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
BorderlineThe King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
The Quick
by Lauren Owen
A Place for Sinners by Aaron Dries
Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
Borderline by Lawrence Block
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
Deep Like the River by Tim Waggoner
Piercing the Darkness edited by Craig Cook
Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale
Carrie by Stephen King
Down by Nate Southard
Brainquake by Samuel Fuller
Scream Along With Me edited by Alfred Hitchcock
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumDisease by M.F. Wahl
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Fangoria: Cover to Cover edited by Anthony Timpone
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Jackpot by David Bernstein, Kristopher Rufty, Shane McKenzie and Adam Cesare
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
Revival by Stephen King
Dark Screams Volume One edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Exponential by Adam Cesare
The Deep by Nick Cutter

Review: ‘The River of Souls’ by Robert McCammon

RiverSoulsWith The River of SoulsRobert McCammon‘s historical thriller series rolls into its fifth volume with a full head of steam. Matthew Corbett, the problem-solving star of the series, is still recovering from the events of the previous book, The Providence Rider, in which he encountered his arch nemesis, the nefarious Professor Fell. The encounter left Corbett reeling, and his employers urge him to take a cupcake assignment in nearby Charles Town as a way to further his recuperation.

The assignment – the escorting of a young woman to a ritzy ball – proves to be the opposite of restful. Corbett’s date with Pandora Prisskitt puts him in the crosshairs of Prisskitt’s hopeful suitor, a mountain of a man named Magnus Muldoon. Muldoon has already buried a couple of young gentlemen in pursuit of Prisskitt’s hand, and he promptly crashes the ball and challenges Corbett to a duel. Muldoon has an expansive physical advantage, but Corbett lives largely on his wits, and quickly hits on an unlikely solution to his predicament.

This encounter results in an uneasy partnership between Corbett and Muldoon, and the duo soon find themselves swept up in events far more serious than the pursuit of a vapid debutante. A 16-year-old girl from a nearby plantation has been murdered, and three slaves accused of involvement in her killing have gone on the run. A large mob, spurred by the promise of a plentiful reward, has set out in pursuit of the three men, but Corbett learns a few facts about the crime that lead him to believe the real murderer may be hiding among them in plain sight. Determined to see that true justice is served, Corbett and Muldoon join the search, a frantic journey that carries them down a treacherous river known locally as “The River of Souls.”

Being this deep into the series means McCammon can spend less time establishing the world and era the Corbett books are set in, and that freedom results in the leanest Corbett novel yet. The novel is basically one long chase, anchored by a dangerous run down the river that is one of the tensest, bloodiest, most action-packed sequences McCammon has ever pulled off. Alligators, Indians, deranged tribesmen painted like glowing skeletons – the search for the three runaways is as dark and dangerous as anything Corbett has ever faced, and McCammon takes some real chances with the character’s ultimate fate. While the main story is resolved, The River of Souls ends on a cliffhanger that’s going to make the wait for the next book interminable at best.

Although each of the Corbett books is richer for having read the ones before it, McCammon is careful to make them accessible on their own, and The River of Souls is no exception. Even with several callbacks to Speaks the Nightbird, the first Corbett book, this latest entry is accessible enough for first-time fans to get a taste of what the series is all about without being completely lost.

A double-shot of Whelan

There seemed to be a lot of activity in and around the book world last week, but nothing made me happier than seeing updates from a couple of my favorite publishers that included new work by one of my favorite artists: Michael Whelan.

WhelanDTAlthough Whelan only provided art for two books in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, it’s his look and characterizations that I see when I read those books. Maybe it’s because he did the art for the two most important (arguably) books in the series, the first and the last, but for whatever reason his interpretation of the characters hit just the right note for me. In my mind, that makes him a natural fit to provide the cover and (I hope) some interior artwork for Cemetery Dance’s upcoming special edition of the revised and expanded version of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance by Robin Furth. Furth has updated her exhaustive reference work to include information from King’s recent addition to the series, The Wind Through the Keyhole. Whelan’s cover artwork really captures the essence and epic feel of the series, and it’s good to see him back at work in King’s twisted universe.

WhelanTravelThe second bit of Whelan goodness comes from Subterranean Press, which unveiled his cover for Robert McCammon’s upcoming horror novel I Travel by Night. You can read an excerpt from the book (described as a melding of McCammon’s Southern gothic and paranormal history work) and see a larger version of the cover right here. McCammon has been doing some amazing work since his return to publishing several years ago, and this is being billed as his return to full-out horror. That’s welcome news for anyone who has read his early classics.

It’s early yet, but 2013 is already stacked with some exciting releases. My bank account is going to be lighter than usual as the year goes on.

Essential October Reads: Nate Southard

It’s become an annual tradition here in October Country to share my Essential October Reads, those works that best capture the essence of the Halloween season for me. This year I’ve asked some of my favorite authors to share their own Essential October Reads with us.

Today let’s welcome Nate Southard, author of numerous novels, novellas, short stories and comics. Nate has a few things he’d like to share with you…the kinds of things you don’t want to turn your back on….

The first book I remember being a vital part of my Halloween came to me as an audiobook.  When I was in the fourth grade, my school library had one copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz.  I desperately wanted to read it.  The cover alone had me shivering.  You try beating six grades worth of kids to that one book, however, and you quickly learn the mean of disappointment.  Even the local Walden Books couldn’t keep copies on the shelves.  They did have it on tape, though.  Lucky me, I was flush with saved allowance cash, so I plunked down the coin and then begged my mom to stop looking at books (as was typical with my mother, she already had a stack three feet high that she intended to purchase) and take me home so I could give the tapes a listen.

Yikes!  Maybe it’s just the filter of memory and nostalgia, but the way George S. Irving read those stories still haunts me.  For me, his voice defined the word ‘Chilling’ for a long time.  I still get little ripples up and down my arms when I think about him screaming, “You’ve got it!” at the end of “The Big Toe.”

Years later, a trio of short stories became a Halloween tradition to me.  Two of them: Stephen King’s “The Boogeyman” and “Graveyard Shift,” lacked any overt Halloween theme, but they had that dark, creepy feeling that made me think of October air and the chill that comes with dark nights and full moons.  Those stories had a deep, dark atmosphere that settled right into my bones.  The last was Robert R. McCammon’s “He’ll Come Knocking on Your Door.”  From the collection Blue World, “He’ll Come Knocking on Your Door” tells the story of a father who learns on Halloween the devil will come for a tribute, that it happens to every member of the community.  When he refuses, the devil still comes to collect, and what follows is one of the most terrifying Halloween tales I’ve ever read.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Finally, I can’t talk about essential Halloween reading without mentioning Norman Patridge’s amazing novella Dark Harvest.  This one also deals with the world of local rituals, this time involving a creature called The October Boy and a bunch of teenagers who have spent a few days fasting in preparation.  The kids take to the streets with nail-studded bats and other improvised weapons as the lurching, Frankensteining (a verb I swiped from Partridge) spirit of Halloween races toward the center of town.  Whoever can stop The October Boy gets a one way ticket out of town and a dead end life.  Dark Harvest is a perfect slice of both horror and noir, a love letter to both genres and to the wonderful time of year that is Halloween.  It’s become a book I read before Halloween every year, and I’ll be doing the same this year.

Nate Southard lives in Austin, Texas, and writes a lot of stuff. His latest releases include his second fiction collection Something Went Wrongand the paperback edition of his debut novel Red Sky, coming soon from Deadite Press

More Essential October Reads