Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Blue World by Robert R. McCammon (1990): This Isn't Really Anything I Think I Like

When it comes to the work of Robert R. McCammon, I think I'm in the minority of fans of 1980s horror fiction: I have never had my interest piqued by one of his books. He's got plenty of rabid fans who swear by Swan Song (1987) or Wolf's Hour (1989) or A Boy's Life (1992), still, even though he went on a 10-year hiatus and only recently began writing and publishing again. Despite his widespread popularity in the late '80s, he always seemed to me bland and middle-of-the-road, a writer for teenagers or hausfraus. I read a few of the stories in his only short-story collection Blue World (Pocket Books, April 1990, cover art by Jim Warren) when it came out, and remember absolutely nothing about them. But I really wanted to give him another try for this blog. Fair enough, right? Well...

UK paperback, Grafton 1990

The writing is simplistically homespun, the metaphoric descriptions amateurish, the psychological insights jejune, the storylines passable but unremarkable for the most part. His prose is so mild that I was never hooked, never captivated. The best story is probably "Nightcrawlers," about a maddened Vietnam vet whose nightmares come to life (wow, really) in an out-of-the-way diner. But the "magical Negro" and one-dimensional sentimentality of "Yellachile's Cage" seems not a patch on King's "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption." The venomous insects of "Yellowjacket Summer" are pretty nasty, and this story works in a straightforward manner. Post-apocalypticism features in "Doom City" (written for Charlie Grant's 1987 anthology Greystone Bay II) and "Something Passed By." Both of these are decent reads, and the mixed-up town of the latter is filled with places like Straub Street, King's Lane, Ellison Field, Barker Promenade, and McDowell Hill. Is that supposed to be funny, or clever, or...?

More: "He'll Come Knocking at Your Door" mines the territory of Joan Samson's The Auctioneer, in which a creepy dude demands payment for the townspeople's good fortune. The solitary madman of "Pin" and his murderous fantasies, and self-mutilation, are somewhat disturbing. "Makeup," "The Red House" and "I Scream Man!" are some of the tritest horror stories I've ever read. They don't suck, mind you, they're just kinda there. Never could get into "Night Calls the Green Falcon," way back when it was Schow's Silver Scream anthology. And I tried, tried to read the titular story, a 150+ page novella about a priest who falls for a porn star, but if there's one thing in this world I care about less than the tortured conscience of a priest who suddenly discovers sex is real and people like it, I don't know what it is.

"One-dimensional" is really the best way to describe these stories. I know some of them date from the early days of his career, a period he's said did not showcase his best work. But many were written for and published in this collection, after he'd become a successful writer of paperback originals for Pocket Books. And I can tell he wants you to like his stories; maybe it's that kind of eagerness, earnestness, that puts me off. As I said, McCammon's work has never appealed to me; I went into this read of Blue World hoping my impressions were wrong but found that, no, my old impressions were right: he's simply not a very interesting or inventive writer, at least not in these stories.

I need more from my horror fiction! This stuff's not trashy, it's not particularly well-written, it's not graphic, it's not haunting, it's not dangerous enough. But McCammon does have an inoffensive readability; perhaps if I'd read this when I was a young, inexperienced horror fan, say about age 13 or 14, I would have enjoyed it. But that's an impossibility no matter what since Blue World came out in 1990 when I was already 20 and well into the genre. It's sadly ironic that one of the most prolific writers of '80s paperback horror novels is one I find least essential.


Martin Rose said...

Ironically, I was about 13/14 when I read Blue World. I think your review just proves my point -- that my memories of the books are kinder in retrospect. I got a detention for reading Swan Song in 6th grade when I should have been paying attention to the finer points of fulcrums and simple machines in science class. :( It's cool to see Blue World turn up on your blog. I had that same paperback edition.

lazlo azavaar said...

I almost purchased that paperback, but my funds were limited, so I decided on two cheaper Lovecraft paperbacks instead. I regret nothing.

Anonymous said...

Allow me to be the dissenting view here.

I fell in love with McCammon's work way back during his "early period" with BETHANY'S SIN in the late '70s. And then became even more enamored with him with the publication of his foray into the vampire novel THEY THIRST. An urban take on 'SALEM'S LOT, if you will.
I bought/read/collected everything by him from that point on right on up through the subject of this review BLUE WORLD. Which is, unfortunately, up to this point the last thing I've read by the author.
That being coincidently, his final genre novel.
Though I have a high opinion of his writing abilities, none of the books he's produced since BLUE WORLD has been of a subject matter that particularly interested me. And plot is huge with me when it comes to the books I choose to read. Even when they're by favs of mine...

( bluerosekiller )

William Malmborg said...

I haven't read any of his Blue World stories yet, but I did really enjoy two of his newer novels Speaks the Nightbird and The Queen of Bedlam. Those are both more historical detective fiction than horror fiction, however. Coincidently I was considering giving Usher's Passing and Baal a try after finding them on Amazon earlier today.

Looking back I know I read Mystery Walk but don't remember anything about it. I was getting ready to go into surgery though so I may be at fault for that.

Anonymous said...

I, too, offer a dissenting view as I really enjoy what I've read of McCammon's books - especially his lurid, b-movie-style early work.

First off, he's a high-concept writer, in the best sense of the word: a werewolf fighting for the allies during WW2 (WOLF'S HOUR), 'Salem's Lot in LA (THEY THIRST), Nazi ghosts raising a haunted U-Boat for revenge (NIGHT BOAT), etc. It's like Roger Corman meets Stephen King (himself a high-concept writer that McCammon sometimes - ala SWAN SONG - gets a little too close to premise-wise).

Second, unlike a lot of the later splatterpunks and nihilistic work that sprung up at the end of the 80's literary horror boom, McCammon (again, similar to King), actually seems to LIKE his characters. While it might not be "cool" - hell, maybe it's even a little old fashioned - I find the horror ride more enjoyable when the author seems as concerned for his main characters as he'd like the reader to be...

Those two elements (premise-driven stories populated with likable characters), for me anyway, lifts McCammon's work heads and tails above other midlist horror writers of the era (JN Williamson, William Johnstone, John Saul - none of whose books have characters or premises I can even remember.)

But my favorite of McCammon's books has very little horror in it at all, but instead is a treasured instance of late '50's/early '60's childhood literary time capsule - BOY'S LIFE. For a while there, it was a subgenre in and of itself, with BOY'S LIFE following King's THE BODY, IT, and Dan Simmons' SUMMER OF NIGHT in a fairly tight period of time (I guess these boomer writers all got a little nostalgic at the same time).

- Trey (MoonDog)

PS - I thought NIGHTCRAWLERS was a wonderful story, although perhaps my reaction to it was colored by the awesome adaptation of it for the late 80's TWILIGHT ZONE revival. That was one of the best episodes of the entire run...

Anonymous said...

I'm almost ashamed to admit as a McCammon fan, that I haven't yet read BOY'S LIFE. Nor MINE or GONE SOUTH either for that matter. Something that I'll definitely have to remedy one of these days. Especially BOY'S LIFE.
I own copies of each of them, but they've been sitting on one of my bookshelves forever...

As for his most recent novels, I'm sorry to say that I most likely will never get around to reading those. Historical fiction is just not something that interests me.
Though THE FIVE does interest me.
I can see myself grabbing that one as soon as it's released in paperback.


Anonymous said...

Hey Jim,

You know, BOY'S LIFE was the last complete novel of his I read. When GONE SOUTH came out, I snapped it up without even bothering with the synopsis on the back, and for the life of me I just couldn't get thru it (ironic, after defending McCammon's readability in my above post).

That was a LONG while ago; I should probably give it another chance. But man, at the time, I was hoping for another King-styled romp, but instead I just got thru the first three or so chapters of a slowly paced literary piece. For me, that's where the break came and McCammon seemed to shed the world of genre fiction and move on to a more literary path - he seemed to be writing for English majors instead of monster kids.

That's why I too haven't read any of his more recent works.

It's too bad he's embarrassed by his early work. I'd love to see him return to the genre that made him a name...

Any idea what he was doing during his decade or so of downtime?


Will Errickson said...

McCammon gave up writing for almost 10 years due to frustration with his publishers who wanted to keep him in the horror genre, while he wanted to grow out of it. There are interviews with him about it on his website.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Will! Just checked out his site, and there's quite a few fascinating interviews. But personally, I most enjoyed reading the biographical "intros" for all his other books.


Derrick Ferguson said...

Check out McCammon's STINGER, which reads like a $100 millon 50's sci-fi/biker/action/horror movie

highwayknees said...

I always thought he was a hack. Although looking at alist of his works I was suprised to find I had read one~ MINE. Which i can remember enjoying in a compact MISERY, kind of way. But there's the rub! His books always seemed to be cheap imitations of King's plots and themes. Even the the timing of their releases seemed suspect. And then there was the bad cover art! Yuck! It put the nail in the coffin for me!

Then his "new" work stared coming out and I got the whiff of a pseudo-literary sensibility . Everyone was raving about SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD...But when I'd thumb thru it it just seemed like pale,florid, Ann Rice copy...To put a point on it: I agree with your assessment .

Anonymous said...

I can't fault the guy for choosing to go in a different direction with his work. Though as a fan of his genre work, I can certainly understand his agent's & publisher's frustrations with his decision.
I mean, it's sort of like a recording artist like Elton John suddenly decide that he's going to only do 19th century style chamber music from now on because that's where his true musical passion lies.
The big record deals & multi-platinum albums are going to be gone as the masses won't follow that sort of departure, but a small portion of diehards will continue to listen to his work no matter what. Enough to keep up a contract with a specialty label anyhow.
Though you know, at the end of the day, that everyone is really hoping for a return to form.
And with McCammon, while so many express contentment with what he's been doing for the past several years, what 99.9% of them ( us ) want is another USHER'S PASSING, STINGER or THEY THIRST.
Me? I'm hoping that his forthcoming THE FIVE is a step in that direction.
Perhaps he can strike a balance with his more literary, historical stuff while also throwing an occasional bone to his old fans with some genre work...
We shall see.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I've only heard good things about BOY'S LIFE & as somewhat of a completest of that stage of McCammon's work & a longtime fan, I really should give it a shot.
Of course, with the ever increasing size of my TBR section on my shelves, there's a good chance that I'll have a paperback copy of THE FIVE alongside it by the time I actually get around to it. LOL


Rob Hamilton said...

I don't dislike McCammon's work, but I don't look at it as impactful. Swan Song is my favorite of his novels, but that was probably due to its similarity to The Stand, which is an all-time favorite. Others have ups-and-downs (They Thirst and Stinger come to mind) and a couple older ones like Baal and Bethany's Sin didn't impress me at all. Blue Rose fits in that "ups and downs" category. A few stories I really liked, some that were okay and a couple that I didn't like. Unfortunately, it's never good when the book-titled novella is in the "don't like" category.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim,

Personally, i think BOY'S LIFE is worth slipping a few notches up in the pile TBR. It actually reminded me a lot of another of my favorites, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; not in terms of plot or specific character, but in the sense of time and place.

Also, if I'm recalling it correctly, the description of a young man's very first kiss was worthy of Bradbury in McCammon's honest yet poetic recreation of that moment.

Oh God - I drew comparisons of Harper Lee and Ray Bradbury all in one comment. (Hope I didn't start a rumble...)



PS - I don't really think of myself as a gushing fanboy when it comes to McCammon - honest. Except for BOY'S LIFE, I haven't really thought about his work too much since I originally read him (King, Barker, Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson are the only genre writers whose work I actually go back and re-read periodically). I was just surprised at all the McCammon backlash, as I was always under the impression that he was well-liked and respected within the mid-list-mid-80's genre.

Plus, I always have to run to the defense of the picked-on kid. It's a personality quirk.

Unknown said...

I loved "Blue World",as well as many other McCammon's works.
I think "Boy's Life" was nothing less than magnificent.
I will NEVER apologize for that.

Will Errickson said...

No need to apologize, Larry. I realize I'm in the minority when it comes to McCammon.

Unknown said...

I know this thread is at least a year old now, but I just want to thank the reviewer for taking a rare, critical look at McCammon. I've read (via unabridged audiobook, I admit) his Swan Song and They Thirst. I enjoyed both, and there were times I believed his writing was excellent. (Such occasions were not in the opening pages, however, nor the final pages, but here and there throughout the heart of the book. Perhaps this is because he is strong with characters, and they take time to develop.)

In both those novels, however, I wasn't sure what to make of him in regard to race. I felt so ambivalent that I've hesitated to recommend it to friends ...at least not without mentioning the potentially problematic race factor (lest some of my friends go on to read/hear the works and think that I was just another oblivious white guy to an author's prejudice). So, anyway, I was glad -- hmm, maybe not 'glad', but I did feel affirmed -- when I read your criticism of one of his short stories as a 'magical negro' tale. That, definitely, fits with what I've felt and read in the two novels I mentioned. McCammon is no white supremacist, that's for sure, but he's got some baggage regarding racial stereotypes and tropes which have reminded me that I am reading the work of a white southerner, even if he is a liberal white southerner.

Anyhow, I'll probably listen to another couple unabridged audiobooks of his, while washing dishes, etc. -- though I'm quite sure I wouldn't make it through his books if I actually tried reading them.

Nor would I take the time to sit down and read his works. I just have too many challenging, and mind-changing important works of nonfiction, and some literature, to read, and those MUST be read. (Though I do enjoy "rereading" Marx's Capital I via Libravox's audiobook.)

Anyway, my remaining life span is already too short for me to read all that I wish to read, esp given the additional books that are always being published. Like just today, I downloaded the new book from the brilliant young [relatively young] philosophy professor, Jason Read: 'Transindividuality.' And hey, come to think of it, if any hardcore social theory/political theory is going to appeal to horror fans, it might be something like that book. Oh, and definitely, horror fans ought to read Stephen Shaviro, starting with Cinematic Body (which features chapters on Romero's zombie films, Cronenberg's horror films, and even a bit on Dario Argento's work)! Admittedly, that book is a bit old now, and Shaviro believes he overstated his case, but at that time, it was very refreshing, and still provides great readings of various horror films. Finally, and most relevant to contemporary horror fiction, on screen and in books, is 'Catastrophism', a collection of essays by Sasha Lilley, et al. It is a MUST-READ for horror & sci-fi fans today, imho.

(Speaking of which, I was relieved that 'Swan Song' does not embrace the catastrophist values and perspectives so prevalent today ...in novels like Red Hill, among many many others. We need to say NO to catastrophe, be it environmental, economic, military, etc, and not fool ourselves into thinking that some kind of positive new world would or even could emerge from a cataclysmic catastrophe.)

God only knows why I went on like this for a comment to a long-dead thread. But maybe the author of Skulls in the Stars might read it, at least. And with any luck, maybe it will be posted and bring new attention to this site via google searches for the tangential stuff I mention. Who knows. I'm just glad I found someone who writes about horror and can be critical, and is not oblivious to race.

Mike said...

Mccammon can outwrite King in his sleep.Blue World is awesome collection.I don't understand why Mccammon is constantly called poor man's Stephen King when he is way better writer in every sense of the word.