Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top Ten Works of Short Fiction: #2, #1

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

2. “Nightcrawlers” (1984; Masques)

McCammon’s story opens with some strongly atmospheric scene-setting: “Wind whined around the front door like an animal trying to claw its way” inside a south Alabama diner “stuck out in the countryside, […] a long way off from civilization.” Diner owner and tale narrator Bob Clayton reads an ominous news story about a gunfire massacre at a motel down in Daytona Beach, foreshadowing the arrival of a gaunt, exhausted-looking stranger named Price. Price proves to be a Vietnam vet, the sole surviving member of a Special Unit nicknamed the Nightcrawlers. But Price believes he, too, should be lying dead with his fellow soldiers back in Southeast Asia, because he only escaped by running from a battle and driving the other Nightcrawlers into the mud as he stepped on their bodies. “And you better believe,” Price says, “I’m in that rice paddy in ‘Nam every time I close my eyes. You’d better believe the men I left back there don’t rest easy.” Now Price is desperate to stay awake, in order to avoid more than just bad dreams. Doused with a potent defoliant dubbed Howdy Doody while serving in the war, Price has developed the ability to turn his thoughts into momentarily tangible projections (“What’s in your head comes true”). And after an overzealous state trooper foolishly knocks Price unconscious, all hell breaks loose: Price’s ghoulish platoon manifests and launches a deadly assault on the diner. “We were all caught in Price’s nightmare,” Bob narrates, “and the Nightcrawlers that Bob had left in the mud were fighting the battle again. […] The Nightcrawlers had come back to life, powered by Price’s guilt and whatever that Howdy Doody shit had done to him.” McCammon’s narrative has a distinct Twilight Zone quality (it was adapted as a stellar episode of the 1980’s reboot of the series), with Bob sounding like a Rod Serling stand-in near story’s end, discussing men lost “in a foreign place they hadn’t wanted to be, fighting a war that turned out to be one of those crossroads of nightmare and reality. I’ve changed my mind about ‘Nam because I understand now that the worst of the fighting is still going on, in the battlefields of memory.” The fantastic elements added to the story accentuate the sociopolitical commentary, highlighting the haunting nature of the Vietnam War–during both the fighting itself and its long, unsettled aftermath. There have been plenty of genre works (by preeminent writers such as David Morrell, Peter Straub, and Jack Cady) that have dealt with the horrors of Vietnam, but none finer or more frightful than “Nightcrawlers.”

 

1. “Best Friends” (1987; Night Visions 4)

This unforgettable novelette starts off as a slow burn before turning into a napalm blast of grisly horror. A sense of foreboding abounds (“It was Alabama autumn at its worst, humid and heavy enough to make bones moan”) as the protagonist, Dr. Jack Shannon, arrives at Marbury Memorial Hospital to help determine whether a criminal held there is psychologically fit to stand trial. Jack’s case file contains “the life history of a monster”; looking over the crime scene photos, Jack feels as if he’s “sweating on the inside of his skin, the outer surface cold and clammy.” A white-painted suburban home, “all-American and ordinary[-looking],” has been transformed into an utter abattoir, with a gruesome scrawl of “HAIL SATAN” on the bloody walls overlooking “a pile of broken limbs that had been flung like garbage into a room’s corner. […] A smashed head lay in a gray puddle of brains. Fingers clawed upward on disembodied hands. A torso had been ripped open, spilling all its secrets.” Even more shockingly, the perpetrator wasn’t some Manson-Family-type intruder, but seventeen-year-old Tim Clausen, “a boy who had torn his mother, father and ten-year-old sister to pieces.” When interviewed by Jack, Tim admits to being an aspiring demonologist, and claims that his family’s deaths were the grim handiwork of his “best friends”–a trio of summoned hell-fiends he calls Adolf, Mother, and Frog. Unfortunately for all involved, Tim is telling the truth. A scene of body horror (one that might make David Cronenberg squirm) erupts: “suddenly the boy’s left eye shot from its socket in a spray of gore and flew across the room. It hit the wall and drooled down like a broken egg. […] The boy’s face rippled, and there came the sound of facial bones popping and cracking like the timbers of an old house giving way.” The creatures had been “hiding inside [Tim] and holding him together like plaster and wire in a mannequin,” but now break free of Tim’s head to reveal themselves in all their grotesque glory and sublime deadliness (e.g. McCammon’s description of the nightmarishly arachnid Mother, who sports fangs like “saw-edged diamonds”: “Mounted on a four-inch stalk of tough tissue was a head framed with a metallic mass of what might have been hair, except it was made of tangled concertina wire, honed to skin-slicing sharpness.” The demonstrably monstrous demons waste no time in embarking on a murderous, carnivorous rampage through the psych ward. McCammon’s narrative offers much more than pulpy graphicness, though. The victims are not anonymous fodder, thanks to the author’s commitment to establishing his cast of characters in the opening pages. The extended confrontation with Tim’s unfriendly comrades is genuinely terrifying, the action at once breathtaking and bloodcurdling as Jack battles to defeat the demons before they can reach their apparent destination: the maternity ward, where they hope to feast on baby flesh. A splatterpunk extravaganza for the Satanic Panic era, “Best Friends” forms one helluva rip-roaring story.

 

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