Friday, May 22, 2015

Late-Early Robert R. McCammon Takes a Mystery Walk

Mystery Walk by Robert R. McCammon (1983): By the mid-1980's, Robert McCammon was a best-selling horror writer whose publishers very firmly positioned him in the tradition of Stephen King. He eventually got tired of being pigeon-holed and all but vanished for about a decade before returning in the early oughts. It's actually a brave moment for a writer -- McCammon could have kept writing contemporary horror for years, as he'd become a very popular writer when he changed. 

Mystery Walk is late-early McCammon, a big jump forward from his first few enjoyable but very pulpy novels of the late 1970's and early 1980's. Is it Kingian? Not consciously, I don't think, and McCammon was always interested in the nuts and bolts of things, whether those things were science-fictional or supernatural in nature. A fair bit of Mystery Walk explores how the supernatural powers of its linked protagonists work, and why, in a metaphysical sense.

The novel follows dirt-poor half-Choctaw Bill Creekmore and seemingly magical faith healer Wayne Falconer into their early twenties in the 1960's and early 1970's. Both hail from a racist, somewhat toxic small town in Alabama. Both must come to terms with supernatural powers: while Falconer can sometimes call upon healing powers, Creekmore can interact with the ghosts left behind by violent deaths and convince them to move on to the afterlife. Both are pursued by a malign supernatural other known to them as the Shape Changer.

McCammon's characters are finely and sympathetically drawn here for the first time in his career. There's a real sense of dread to the supernatural set-pieces that dot the novel. My favourite is a battle between Billy and a supernaturally infected carnival ride. McCammon manages to create sympathy for Falconer as well, as he goes down the wrong path for understandable reasons and ends up under the sway of a somewhat cartoonish Los Angeles mobster with a fear of contamination that makes Howie Mandel look like Pigpen.

Despite its scenes of horror, Mystery Walk occupies the borderlands between horror and dark fantasy. Even early in his career, McCammon resisted being just one thing, and the novel shows an affinity for Ray Bradbury as much as it does a resemblance to Stephen King. The Bradbury influence shows up in content, not in style, and it would again and again throughout McCammon's career. Billy's time spent working for a magician at a traveling carnival is the most Bradburyian stretch here, and it's the most enjoyable of the novel.

McCammon also does a fairly sensitive job of using Native American mythology (or at least the semblance of Native American mythology) to supply the underpinnings of the supernatural forces at work in the novel. The Shape Changer's motivations only come into complete focus in the novel's climax, and they make perfect sense. The journeys to self-awareness of Falconer and especially Billy are the eponymous 'Mystery Walk.' 

Certain things are problematic. The aforementioned mobster doesn't fit organically into the novel, and his almost cartoonish qualities make him seem like a James Bond villain from the Roger Moore era by the time we're done with him. The set-up for the climax stretches credibility to its limits, even in a novel in which we must accept the presence of the supernatural. But you're watching a young but capable writer figure out how to put things together. It all ends up feeling like the somewhat uneven but ultimately rewarding start to a series of novels that never materialized. Recommended.

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