June 14, 2011

Fear and Old Friends

Until a couple of months ago, I was a voracious reader who devoured up to two novels a week. Recently, I’ve been lucky to eek out a book a month. There’s just too much going on. Some of it, I’ve talked about. Some of it, I haven’t. Some of it, I can’t. All of it, however, has left me tired and with very little free time. The extra grains I wring from the hourglass go to either writing or sleep.

I have a confession to make. I actually don’t buy a lot of brand-new books. I don’t. I think they’re too expensive in pretty much every format. The only new books I buy are from authors I know I like. Instead, for new fiction I rely on the library.

The problem is—I’ve had to return things before getting to finish them or I’ve kept them out too long. Both of which make me feel bad. It’s silly, I know, but it’s the way it is. Part of it is my over-developed sense of fairness—which often gets me in trouble. Another part of it is just the nature of suffering. I'll skip a large part of the Buddhist philosophying and just focus on the role of fear. Krishnamurti said,

"Fear is always in relation to something; it does not exist by itself. There is fear of what happened yesterday in relation to the possibility of its repetition tomorrow; there is always a fixed point from which relationship takes place. How does fear come into this? I had pain yesterday; there is the memory of it and I do not want it again tomorrow."

Fear of the other things I've been going through was turning something that should be no big deal into another source of stress. I should recognize that my reading slowing down was nothing to worry about. It wasn't indictative of anything other than a lack of time and being tired. It too, like everything else, is transient.

Sometimes it's easier said than done. Since I have absolutely no control over either Maria's health or my job stress, I decided to exercise control over this. To combat it, to regain control of my thoughts, I decided not to pick up anything new from the library. I own a ton of books. These are books I know I like, that I’ll enjoy reading again, and won’t have to finish or return by a certain date.

Stress eliminated.

The question was—what do I read?

I scanned my shelves. That’s when I remembered Robert McCammon.
Robert McCammon

I don’t know if you do. McCammon was a part of the horror boom that gave us Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, and a host of others now mostly forgotten now. McCammon’s first horror novel, Baal, was published in 1978. It sold well and he followed it up with two more books, both written and published in 1980—The Night Boat and Bethany’s Sin. Those three set him off on a very successful career.

McCammon was always my favorite from that period. His fiction always felt far more human and genuine than the aw-shucks act King drags out over hundreds of bloated pages; not to mention, he’s a much better plotter. His Bram Stoker winning novel, Swan Song, is often compared to The Stand, but McCammon's is a better book. Both the good and the evil feel far more real than King's heroes and villains. Plus, there's no literal hand of God coming down to save the day.

I realized a long time ago that Koontz just keeps confronting the same theme over and over again with the same characters dressed in new skins. His attempts at nostalgia and introspection, at all those big things literary fiction attempts to claim as its sole possession (love, hope, loyalty, despair, death, regret), don’t compare to the briefest of McCammon’s genuinely moving passages.

And Barker? While Barker is capable of works of stunning and imaginative brilliance, he’s also capable of writing some dull and long-winded, pseudo-intellectual garbage that’s about as appealing as giving yourself papercuts on your tongue before drinking fresh-squeezed lemonade. McCammon’s never written a bad book. Not all of them are brilliant, but none of them are bad.

The extraordinary thing about McCammon, besides writing and publishing two well-written horror novels in a year, was that his first book published was the first book he ever wrote. (Take a minute to let that sink in—the first book he ever wrote was the first book he ever published. No trunk full of failed attempts. No boxes of rejected manuscripts. He decided to write a book and it was published—done deal.) If you read those first four books you can see him figuring out how to focus his raw talent…while getting paid.

Yeah, I know.

The sad thing is talent proved to be his downfall.

You see, as McCammon learned to control and focus those gifts, his work drifted away from straight horror. I would never call Mine a horror novel, even though I remember it being billed as one. Boy’s Life (one of my all time favorites and a book that every father should read to his son) is a genre onto itself—unless Dandelion Wine is a genre. In 1992, after the publication of Gone South, McCammon fully turned his attention to something different. He began researching and writing a lengthy historical mystery called Speaks The Nightbird. It should have been his best book to date, instead it was the first book no one wanted. He was supposed to be the horror guy. The horror guy shouldn’t be writing historical mysteries set during Colonial times.

So, that was it. He retired. He was done with being told what he should be writing. It’s my understanding, too, he was exhausted and burned out. He missed spending time with friends and, most importantly of all, his family. McCammon wanted to assume a more active role in raising his daughter.

Thankfully, it wasn’t forever. Almost ten years after he wrote it, Speaks the Nightbird finally saw publication; first in limited edition, then in a larger mass-market run. It sold well. Well enough there is now a series featuring Matthew Corbett, apprentice problem solver in Colonial America.

The Corbett books are good. Like I said, McCammon hasn’t written a bad book ever; they’re just not my thing. I can’t say there's anything wrong about them. I can’t. I just don’t really care for that sort of fiction. If you like richly detailed, character-driven historical mysteries than you need to go read them.

He's back now and last month, McCammon released a modern novel, The Five. But I don't need to worry about that now. I've got Baal, The Night Boat, Bethany's Sin, Mystery Walk, Usher's Passing, Swan Song, Stinger, The Wolf's Hour, Blue World, Mine, Boy's Life, and Gone South. They're old friends. And old friends never let you down.
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