Robert R. McCammon no doubt is best known as an author of mammoth, epic-scale novels (e.g., Swan Song, Boy’s Life, They Thirst, Stinger, Speaks the Nightbird). He is not very prolific in terms of writing short fiction (short stories/novelettes): in his four-decade-plus career, McCammon has only averaged one such publication a year. When he does work at shorter lengths, though, McCammon typically produces strong pieces, which makes it difficult to narrow down his output to a top ten. But I will give it my best shot here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, counting down my selections over the next four Sundays.
10. “On a Beautiful Summer’s Day, He Was” (1990; The Further Adventures of the Joker)
A portrait of an archvillain as a young sociopath. This origin story of the Joker (think the Heath Ledger version, not the more cartoonish iterations of the character) is grim and harrowing. Fourteen-year-old “Junior” Napier is a lonely outcast, mocked by the older kids in the neighborhood as a “goony” as walks the streets of his Gotham suburb. His home life is even worse, as both he and his mother are terrorized by his mentally-unbalanced father’s terrible act. Comedy-obsessed, Junior’s father constantly fires off groan-worthy jokes, and gives new meaning to punchline with his bullying insistence on a mirthful reaction: “SMILE, I SAID!” There’s a dangerous rage lurking in the dark pools of the father’s eyes: “It flew out without warning, but most of the time it lay inside Dad’s head and simmered in its stew of perpetual jokes and gritted teeth smiles. Where that rage had been born, and why, Junior did not know, and he figured his father didn’t know either. But jokes were its armor and weapons, and Dad wore them like metal spikes.” The tyrannical, abusive Mr. Napier succeeds in warping more than Junior’s sense of humor. Like an incipient serial killer, Junior is fascinated with death, and builds macabre structures–secretly housed inside an old water tank–out of the bones of slain animals (in the story’s horrifying climax, Junior graduates to the procuring of a human skeleton). The missing last word from this American Gothic story’s title is “smiling,” prefiguring the vicious mischief that the eventual “Clown Prince of Crime” will one day unleash on Gotham City.
9. “Black Boots” (1989; Razored Saddles)
A fugitive, bank-robbing gunslinger, Davy Slaughter, flees across a desert hellscape in the Wild West: “The sun, white as a pearl in the emerald air, was burning the moisture out of [him]. Davy thought he could hear his skin frying.” He is also wounded, sporting a bullet-scorched hand courtesy of his last run-in with a bounty hunter dubbed Black Boots. This dead-eyed desperado’s predicament seems to extend beyond natural concerns, though, as revealed when Davy claims to have already gunned down Black Boots “eight damn times.” Davy has to keep moving, because he believes the hunter is still on his trail in the form of a relentless revenant who “gets a little faster” on the draw every time he returns from the dead (as described by Davy, “This man who wears black boots is tall and skinny. He looks like he ain’t had a good meal in a long time. He looks hungry. His face is dusty-white, but you can’t set eyes on him for very long because you feel cold inside”). McCammon’s narrative is marked throughout by startling imagery that might be the product of Davy’s sunbaked derangement–or might have more ominous origin. A vulture hovering in the sky begins “to fall to pieces, drifting apart like dark whorls of smoke.” A bartender’s face suddenly becomes covered with “a mess of flies”; moments later, a rattlesnake wiggles from the man’s apparently empty eye socket. With increasing paranoia mounted on top of an already surly disposition, Davy grows dreadfully quick-triggered, and the rotten gunman ultimately finds himself fresh out of bullets when he needs them most. From its opening one-line paragraph (“Under a hard green sky, Davy ran from Black Boots”) that echoes Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, to a wicked clincher that hints that the titular “crafty bastard” might have bested Davy with infernal trickery, “Black Boots” blazes an exemplary Weird Western trail.
8. “The Deep End” (1987; Night Visions 4)
Glenn Calder is understandably grief-stricken following the drowning death of his sixteen-year-old son Neil in an “Olympic-sized public swimming pool.” But the man descends into Louis-Creed-like obsession after he catches up with the pool’s history of tragic mishap over the past few summers. Glenn has become convinced that the “small, circular purple bruise” found on the back of a previous victim’s neck was a “bitemark,” and that Neil was likewise killed by some alien predator. Now, Glenn is hellbent on revenge, and desperate to act before the next day’s draining of the pool: “Tomorrow would be too late. Because tomorrow, the thing that lurked in the public swimming pool would slither away down the drain and get back to the lake where it would wait in the mud for another summer season and the beckoning rhythm of the pump.” The story builds tremendous suspense as Glenn breaks into the pool grounds at night and explores the murky waters (wearing snorkeling gear and wielding a speargun). Glenn has to proceed carefully, considering the countless places the chameleon-like creature could hide: “It could be lying along a black line, or compressed flat and smooth like a stingray on one of the colored tiles. [Glenn] looked across the pool where the false ladder [that had lured Neil in] had been–the monster could make itself resemble a ladder, or it could curl up and emulate the drain, or lie flat and still in a gutter waiting for a human form to come close enough. Yes. It had many shapes, many colors, many tricks.” “The Deep End” is perfectly titled, doubling as a description of the pool’s most dangerous section and as a comment on Glenn’s sanity–the possibility that he has slipped “right off the deep end” in the wake of Neil’s death. At this point, it is probably no great spoiler to note that Glenn’s imagined predator proves to be real and suitably monstrous, making for a frightful climactic battle. Just as Peter Benchley’s Jaws chased legions of beachgoers out of the ocean, McCammon’s horrific tale threatens to scare the swimsuit off the reader, who will think twice about ever testing the waters of a public swimming pool again.