In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have
Dancer in the dark: Pat Black
For this nineties teenager who grew up polluting his mind with everything the Horror Boom had to offer, one of the biggest names to be found on the shelves of John Menzies was Robert R McCammon.
McCammon, hailing from Birmingham, Alabama (try reading that without hearing Skynyrd), was popular right in the middle of the horror gold rush lasting from the late 1970s to early 1990s. This was Stephen King's imperial phase, and everyone in publishing wanted a slice of that nice, fat pie.
Writers such as Dean R Koontz, James Herbert, Graham Masterton, Dan Simmons, Clive Barker and others found prominence on British shelves in a way that I suspect wouldn't happen today. One man who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and was easily their equal at the pounds-per-book weigh-in, was McCammon.
Out of all the writers from this period, McCammon's career was the one I most wanted to emulate. When I dreamed of being a novelist as a boy, I used to plan out my "big novels" - sub-genres, basically, which I then tried to flesh out with hackneyed storytelling and stock characters. There'd be my Big Vampire Novel (this would very much resemble Salem's Lot... which, to be fair, very much resembled Dracula). There'd be the Big Werewolf Novel. And there'd be the Big Alien Invasion novel. They Thirst, The Wolf's Hour and Stinger! embodied these three concepts perfectly.
All three books are very long, 450-pages plus. They're cinematic in scope, packed with action, and I sliced through them in short order. Did I read The Wolf's Hour in a single day during Easter 1992, when I should have been studying for my Standard Grades? I think I did.
While, thank god, I got the Standard Grades, I no longer have these books. I borrowed one of them, and gave the other two away to my niece. How does my memory treat them, nearly a quarter of a century later?
Stinger! – exclamation mark very much intended - was a terrific romp, set in a US-Mexico border town called Inferno. There are two teenage gangs, and - wouldn't you know it? - one of the gang leaders falls for the sister of the rival hoodlums’ leader. Caaaapulet!! Montaguuue!!
Oh yeah... and there's the little matter of the alien who crash-lands in Inferno, chased to Earth by Stinger, another, more fearsome extra-terrestrial.
Stinger can change shape and turn out clones, like many of the monsters who lumbered through the sci-fi B-movie classics this novel mimics. Except it can't quite disguise itself properly, allowing needle teeth, blue blood and other odd characteristics to poke through. We get plenty of tension as some of the characters are assimilated and taken over, some of whom remain hidden until vital moments; shades of The Thing (or indeed “Who Goes There?”).
On top of that, the town is completely covered by a force shield, meaning no-one can get in or out - Stephen King, take note? - while Stinger hunts down the goodie alien (who I think has taken over the body of a young girl). This leads to a showdown over the course of 24 hours of mayhem between the teenage delinquents, united alongside the goodie alien, versus Stinger!
It's nigh-on impossible to judge Stinger! on any kind of literary merit, at such a distance; but I am prepared to make the tragic admission that if I had a great time with it at age 14 or 15, then I might still find pleasure in it nowadays, guilty or otherwise.
Partial Recall: Just off the top of my head, I can recall a motorbike chase, which I think was revealed to us in the unusual "foreshadowing" prologue chapter. There's an eerie section when we discover how Stinger manages to make copies of the villagers - and also how hard he is, when one of the cloned monsters laughs off a shotgun blast to the face, albeit lop-sidedly.
There's plenty of aggro porn early on when the gangs knock lumps out of each other; there's a whole alien backstory, charting the beef the goodie alien has with Stinger, involving genocide and mucking up an entire species' reproductive cycle. And there's the obligatory big showdown, about which I can recall next to nothing.
I do remember a coda scene, where a geeky boy ends up falling asleep in a bathtub with an older, glamorous local girl, and gets a peek at her boobs. All's well that perves well.
They Thirst is one of McCammon's earliest books, and sees an ancient vampire taking over modern day Los Angeles, using a mock Gothic castle in the Hollywood hills as his power base. Our hero is a well-meaning but violent parish priest, coming on like Batman in a dog collar as he visits righteous hidings upon the hoodlums in his neighbourhood prior to getting wise to the vampire threat. The King Vampire, whose name I think is Vulkan, is a 17-year-old boy in immortal form who creates an undead army that swarms over the city.
As with Stinger!'s force-shield, an apocalyptic event visits LA in the form of... well, I'm not sure. Either it's a storm or a tidal wave; I can't remember precisely which. But the place gets levelled, evening up the odds between the goodies and the bities. I recall how the final showdown between the fighty priest and the head vampire goes down, but I can remember precious little else about this whacking great book. Ultimately I was a little bit bored by its size and scope – disaster movies tend to get on my nerves.
Perhaps I was finally starting to grow out of my horror phase.
Partial Recall: Basically the final showdown, which I can't talk about because, you know, spoilers... although if you've ever seen Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, you might have a wee smile to yourself. Unlike Stephen King's undead in Salem's Lot, these vampires can change shape and become dogs and bats, like Dracula. There's some sort of Renfield-esque henchman looking out for King Vamp during business hours when the sun shines, who may have been a serial killer. I can't remember any other characters. I do recollect a totally unnecessary sex scene quite early on, which might have introduced the main female character, as she has fun with a boyfriend and his buzzy little friend before they are rudely interrupted by bloodsuckers. As I said, I was about 14 when I read this.
Last, but certainly not least, comes The Wolf's Hour. In our review of The Last Werewolf a few years back, I lamented the fact that we haven't yet had the definitive lycanthropy novel. The Wolf's Hour is the only vaguely modern book I can think of that runs Glen Duncan's teeth, guts and sarcasm classic close for the title. Set during the first half of the 20th century, it follows the fortunes of Michael Gallatin, an Allied spy parachuted into occupied Europe to take on the Nazis in 1942.
Gallatin has a talent that puts James Bond's flame-thrower shaving foam and Cuban heel switchblades to shame: he can turn into a big bad wolf. Not a bad skill to have if you like sneaking around at night, doing secret stuff... and killing Nazis.
The narrative splits into two, the wartime action spliced with flashback sections following Michael's adolescence in Russia as he discovers his shape-shifting abilities, becomes an outcast from his family and joins a werewolf pack.
The separate storylines and time-shifts integrate well (not unlike Connor MacLeod's New York/Scotland scenes in Highlander). When you get bored of the wartime espionage, here's some wolf carnage in Russia; when you get tired of that, here's some wolf carnage in occupied France... Yes, more wolf carnage, please, I'm a greedy boy.
This was a book I got through in a very short time, considering its length. Gads, to look back on those years when I had time to sit and read novels in just a couple of sittings... balmy days... in which I could have been spending my time much more profitably and sociably. Hey ho. That's who I was. In fairness, I packed in a good belt of under-age drinking, too. Back then I was only a closet square; now I'm out and proud.
Partial Recall: Again, the showdowns were perfectly set-up and executed and I remember how the main baddie and his fantastic henchman, Boots, get theirs. Apart from that, I can mostly recall the rural scenes as Gallatin hunts with the pack. It's a little bit like White Fang in this respect, as Gallatin the newcomer must fight for supremacy to become top dog among the shape-shifters - not to mention gaining the right to mate.
I also remember that Gallatin's pack gets a nasty case of lungworm, which turned my 15-year-old stomach - so it must have been particularly grim reading.
The rest of it's gone down the memory hole. But I do know I enjoyed it, and wanted to write a book just like it.
I'm happy to tell you that McCammon's entire backlist is currently available to buy on your Kindles and Kobos. Now in his early sixties, McCammon seems to be publishing regularly again after an apparent hiatus from the late 1990s onwards. As I lurch closer to middle age, I'm tempted to go back and take a look at his work to see if it was actually any good. I have to fight a nostalgic hankering to revisit The Wolf's Hour in particular.
But I've got too much stuff piled up to read as it is. Our time is precious, and if it must be spent reading books then there are better ones out there more worthy of our attention.
I also no longer want to pen big Vampire, Werewolf or Alien Invasion novels at time of writing... but, never say never.
Next time, The Blind Reviewer will try to cast his mind back to the weird and bloody work of mysterious 90s schlockmeister, Michael Slade.