Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Return of Robert McCammon - The Five

review by John Scoleri 

The Five
Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press
May 2011

In the late 80s, people were quick to proclaim the latest heir to Stephen King's throne. Of the many candidates none resonated quite like Robert R. McCammon, who delivered a 1-2-3 punch of Swan Song, Stinger, and The Wolf's Hour. He followed those up with the amazing psychological thriller Mine (featuring what remains one of the most powerful opening chapters ever written), the coming of age tale Boys Life, and the wild adventure Gone South.

And then whoosh. Gone amidst rumors that Pocket Books tried to force his hand to stick to conventional horror novels, when his inner drive was leading in different directions. For all intents and purposes, it would appear that McCammon called their bluff. He walked away from what had to have been lucrative publishing offers, and readers saw no new McCammon fiction for the next 10 years.

And then one day the announcement came. A small press in Alabama, River City Publishing, released a monstrous colonial era thriller, Speaks the Nightbird. The middle initial 'R.' was gone, as if to signify that we were witnessing a birth of a new author. At the time it was not clear if it would be a one-shot effort, after which McCammon would recede into shadows once more. But the book was good. Damn good. And readers responded. Pocket picked up the paperback rights, split it in two, and apparently did well enough to make a hard/soft offer on the follow up in 2007, The Queen of Bedlam. They didn't go out of their way to do anything special with it, producing a pulp trade paperback and a short run hardcover edition that basically was a case bound trade paperback. But quality of production aside, the book was another winner. And audiences yearned for continuing adventures of Matthew Corbett. Enter Subterranean Press.

I have long sung the praises of Subterranean, run by Bill Schafer. Their books are beautifully produced, reasonably priced, and with relatively few exceptions, released according to schedule. As small presses go, the combination of all three of those traits is very rare and welcomed.

Bill stepped in when it came time to publish the third Matthew Corbett adventure, Mister Slaughter last year. Another excellent read—this one finally presented in a manner the prior books had so richly deserved. Their trade edition went into multiple printings, and was available through major retailers including Amazon. I recall sitting across from someone on the train one day reading a copy and thinking, this person has no idea that they're reading a book from a specialty press. I would say that I hope the success Subterranean Press had with Mister Slaughter would lead to more from McCammon, but it already has:
  • A sold out reissue of The Wolf's Hour coupled with a brand new Michael Gallatin novella.
  • a collection of additional Gallatin stories on the way.
  • reissues of McCammon's first four horror novels (beginning with Baal) are on deck.
I hope they don't stop there—I'd love to swap out my Dark Harvest Swan Song with a handsome Subterranean Press edition (not to mention the first two novels in the Matthew Corbett cycle). And now, for the first time in 20 years, a new contemporary supernatural novel, The Five.

This time out, McCammon's love for music takes center stage as we follow the struggling band of the title on a tour of small venues across the American Southwest. Only this is a Robert McCammon novel, so you can assume all does not bode well for our rockers, and not just their inner squabbles about whether to stick together or break up. An off-hand anti-war remark in an interview sets off a disturbed Iraq war veteran, who embarks on a mission to kill all the members of the band.

After one of the bandmates is shot, the attention The Five receives leads to a sudden rise in their popularity. Torn between calling it quits or completing what will likely be their farewell tour, they decide to work with the authorities in the hope of flushing out the killer before they're all dead.

Readers expecting a 'supernatural' novel from Robert McCammon are likely to be kept on their toes.  I think he plays upon the readers expectations rather deftly. A little more than halfway through the book I thought I had finally figured out where he was going and yet he no sooner surprised me with a much different supernatural experience than I was expecting.

If you've been waiting for McCammon to return to contemporary fiction, I don't think you will be disappointed by The Five. I will say that it's a challenge for an author to convey music to a reader using words alone; I wish I had an accompanying album from The Five to listen to, so that I could hear the music that was playing in McCammon's head as he was writing those scenes. Thankfully, the characters are so compelling that this is not a significant distraction. In his afterword, McCammon dedicates the book to a list of literally hundreds of bands and artists, and I expect readers will scan for their favorites (I confirmed that Crowded House is on the list) to see if they were in some small way an influence on the author.

Since picking up Swan Song in 1987, I've read every book Robert McCammon has written. I am thrilled that he is firmly back in the game, and I anxiously await whatever he does next, regardless of the period or genre. That's the true testament of a great writer.


Peter Enfantino said...

I remember in the late 80s, McCammon took over the role that Stephen King once had in my mind: the writer you just could not wait to hear from again.

Phil Stephensen-Payne said...

While I agree entirely that Subterranean Press produce lovely books, they are sadly priced out of the reach of many McCammon fans (like myself). Hopefully he will become popular enough again to return to a major trade publisher (with ST doing limited editions for those who want them).

Hunter said...

The Subterranean trade editions of Mister Slaughter ($24.95) and The Five ($26.95) are priced about the same as trade hardcovers from the New York publishers---or even less.

John Scoleri said...

I'm thinking Phil must be referring to trade or mass market paperbacks, as the hardcovers are not only competitive, as Hunter points out, but far superior in quality. I think Pocket's disappointing hardcover for Queen of Bedlam was more expensive than Sub's Mister Slaughter.