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Friday, August 29, 2008

Book Review: Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

nightbird coverI immersed myself in Robert McCammon's Speaks the Nightbird for days. I first read it in 2002 when it was released in hardback by River City Publishing (Pocket Books put out the paperback version in 2003). It had been over a decade since McCammon last produced a novel; Nightbird reads astonishingly quickly for its near 700-page length, and McCammon's prose is as smooth, poetic, and unselfconscious as it has ever been.

Writing a period piece like this is never an easy task, but McCammon manages to make the dialogue spoken by the characters ring true in modern-day readers' ears, and his narrative passages easily rank alongside anything written by the Bronte Sisters or Jane Austen; yes, there's a certain--and necessary--austere quality to the language, but McCammon never once gets bogged down by the challenges of this particular brand of prose.

His characterization is crystalline; from the major players to even the smallest supporting roles, not one person who populates this book rings a false note--and considering the size of Nightbird 's cast (were David Lean still alive, he might well be planning this novel for his next gargantuan production), that is no small feat.

The overriding triumph of this genuinely magnificent novel is the utter believability of its core love story (and it should be noted here that, despite the death, hopelessness, and violence that surrounds the cast, there are several different types of love stories that run through this novel, one that easily takes it place in the classical Romantic tradition of Jane Eyre or Silas Marner).

It would have been easy--and arguably justified--to present the love story between Matthew and Rachel in an overly-passionate, smoldering, Sturm-und-Drang manner, playing its inherently tragic aspects to the hilt in the tradition of Victorian drama or grand opera, but McCammon has a much more subtle and affecting way of playing out the romance between his two central characters. They come together because of a mutual alienation with their fellow human beings, and because each is, at their core, a painfully lonely person who each have come to believe they will exit this life without ever having truly loved or been loved, without touching another person, without moving another human being, and in each the other finds a a hard, gem-like flame of hope amidst the madness and squalor of the times in which they are trapped.

You also cannot help but shake your head in wonder at the staggering amount of research that McCammon put into this novel, and in the way he makes this research necessary to the story's unfolding--not just as some expositional dump that screams, "Hey, lookit me! I done did all this here research and I'm gonna cram every last bit of it down your throat!" McCammon doesn't do that here--doesn't even come close. The historical accuracy present in these pages is not only impressive but vital to the deeper levels of the narrative. Plus it's all damned interesting, if at times blackly depressing.

Finishing this novel left me saddened--not because of the final outcome of the story, which is both inevitable and moving and therefore as satisfying as you could hope for, given the subject matter; no, it saddened me because, as McCammon has said, this does not signal his return to writing. In an interview I recently read, McCammon stated that one of the reasons he left the horror field was because it had become a literature that (his exact words following) "...celebrates death," and he no longer wishes to be a part of that.

Speaks the Nightbird is filled with death, but ultimately celebrates life and the possibilities offered to even the most despondent soul by love and faith. Finishing this novel made me wish McCammon would consider the contradiction at the center of his reasoning: yes, maybe horror/dark fantasy/whatever in the hell they're calling it this month...maybe it had been reduced to a literature that celebrated death, but the tide is turning, and now, more than ever, the field needs McCammon's skill and humanity to become what he himself once referred to as "...the supreme mythic literature of our time."

But let's face it; as much as we as readers (and myself as a writer for whom McCammon's craft and skill served as a strong influence) might bemoan the absence of further McCammon books, we are lucky to have this one. And the happiness of no readership--regardless how large or feverishly dedicated that readership may be--is worth any writer's peace of mind and happiness. Maybe McCammon will return to the field one day, and maybe not: I, for one, thank him regardless, for he has given me so many wonderful tales to remember and to which I can return anytime I choose. Like this one.

Speaks the Nightbird, aside from being probably the best novel you'll read this year, proves that, in hands like McCammon's, horror (in all its facets and forms, not just the traditional, boring, pale tropes), could very well fulfill that promise that he himself so eloquently foresaw. It's just a pity that the field let him down and we lost a man who was easily the most passionate and humane dark fantasist of his time. Speaks the Nightbird will leave you hoping, as it did me, that the much-missed Mr. McCammon will someday come back to us--or, rather, allow us to join back with him.

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