[For the previous countdown post, click here.]
4. “Yellowjacket Summer” (1986; The Twilight Zone magazine)
“Yellowjacket Summer” forms the lead story in McCammon’s collection Blue World for good reason: it is a premier work of horror. Riding on E, protagonist Carla Emerson (traveling with her children Joe and Trish to meet up with her husband) pulls her van into a decrepit gas station in the backroads town of Capshaw, Georgia. Joe makes a beeline for the rest room, but in the middle of relieving himself realizes that the ceiling is crawling with myriad yellowjackets: “One landed on his left cheek and walked toward his nose. Five or six of them were crawling on his sweaty Conan the Barbarian T-shirt. And then he felt some of them land on his knuckles, and–yes–even there too.” The vulnerable boy is saved (for the moment, at least) when the young attendant Toby summons the yellowjackets via a “low, weird whistle.” The narrative turns into more than a tale of natural rampage; Toby’s possession of the “beckonin’ touch” and his tyrannical terrorizing of the adults remaining in the almost-ghost town steers readers straight into Twilight Zone country (shades of the classic episode “It’s a Good Life”). Desperate to make an exodus from this nightmare place, Carla attacks Toby, holding a knife to his neck as the yellowjackets threaten to strike. Toby ratchets up the tension by recounting the fate of a state trooper who stumbled upon Capshaw: “And he was gonna put a call through on his radio, but when he opened his mouth I sent ’em in there. They went right smack down his throat. […] They stung him to death from the inside out.” In turn, Toby threatens Carla: “I’ll make ’em sting your eyeballs out and go up your ears.” As if matters weren’t harrowing enough, the character Mase that (touched-in-the-head) Toby was conversing with earlier in the story is revealed as a Norma Bates-esque husk: “The yellowjackets had burrowed a nest inside the dead man, and now they were pouring out of him by the thousands.” And such terrifying discovery isn’t even the climax of this phobia-poking shocker. If readers don’t have a deep fear of wasps going in, they certainly will dread the yellow and black harriers by tale’s end.
3. “Lizardman” (1989; Stalkers)
In this thrilling and atmospheric variation on a monster story (available as a free read on the author’s website), the titular hunter stalks a legendary gator called Old Pope, a “chawer of bones and spitter of flesh” with “a great gruesome snout” and “a heart as tough as a cannonball.” The grizzled, cigar-chomping Lizardman is surely no beauty in his own right, but counts that fact in his favor, figuring that it “took mean and ugly to kill mean and ugly.” McCammon paints a haunting Florida Gothic scene as Lizardman penetrates the “sargasso seas of the swamp,” littered with “the hulks of decaying boats” and the sunken remains of defeated hunters: “Their bones had moldered on the bottom, like gray castles, and slowly moss had streamed from their ramparts and consumed them in velvet slime.” Old Pope, meanwhile, is rendered mythic by the referenced tales of local Seminoles, which allege that the creature “was a ghost gator, couldn’t be killed by mortal man,” or that it “had ridden on a bolt of lightning into the heart of the swamp.” Suspense steadily mounts, with Old Pope remaining unseen throughout most of the story (at one point, the giant biter makes its presence known from underwater, chomping one of the Lizardman’s hooked gators right in half). When Old Pope finally surfaces in the climax, it proves no ordinary alligator but an eldritch horror with “yellow eyes set under a massive brow where a hundred crabs clung like barnacles to an ancient wharf” (hissing snakes likewise “clung to the thing’s gnarled maw”). Akin to Kong of Skull Island, Old Pope is a veritable “swamp-god, king of the gators.” McCammon himself warrants some lofty laurels here: it’s a testament to his narrative mastery that he can stage such an epic battle within the scant pages of a short story, and that he can take a tale of man vs. red-toothed/-clawed nature and add cosmic resonance to it.