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.


Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top 10 Works of Short Fiction: #4, #3

[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.

Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top 10 Works of Short Fiction: #7, #6, #5

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]


7. “Children of the Bedtime Machine” (2012; Shadow Show)

McCammon is no stranger to post-apocalyptic fiction, having produced several memorable examples (from the short story “Something Passed By” to the epic novel Swan Song). Here he envisions a post-technological world ecologically devastated by a global war. It’s a “sad and brutal world,” but the story (commissioned for an anthology celebrating the fiction of Ray Bradbury) does not prove some grim descent into Gothic horror: “There was no panic, and there was very little violence. The ones who had lived by that code were long dead. Now the remaining ones had taken on the thinness, the attitude and the patience of saints, as they waited for the end.” Emphasizing the lonesome rather than the loathsome, “Children of the Bedtime Machine” presents an isolated protagonist, an anonymous woman who lost both her husband and son long ago during the war. The melancholic gives way to the magical, though, when the woman comes across the titular gizmo while bartering at a store in “Douglasville”–a hand-cranked hologram projector designed as a sleep aid in the former age of the world. But when the machine later comes to life in the woman’s bedroom, it does not produce tranquil scenes of nature. Having already captured the tones, themes, and prose stylings of Bradbury, McCammon’s story takes a strong metafictional turn, as an exponentially-growing number of children are projected and ask the (soon-to-be-rejuvenated) woman to read to them aloud from her paperback volume of Bradbury stories. Accenting Bradbury’s ongoing generational impact, McCammon raises the possibility that these youthful figures are more than just “holograms and sparks.” The woman can’t help but wonder “if they were the spirits of children yet to be born. She wondered if when they came to real life, they would not have some memory of the stories, some feeling that they knew them even before they heard them the first time. Because she was sure that through these children the stories would live forever.” In an afterword, McCammon asserts that his narrative expresses his “feeling that Ray Bradbury’s work is timeless”; this hopeful fantasy story, a moving tribute to the Bradbury canon, promises to have a long shelf life of its own.


6. “Night Calls the Green Falcon” (1988; Silver Scream)


63-year-old Creighton Flint, a former star of Saturday matinee serials back in the 1940’s, is plagued by nightmares that replay scenes from his time as a crime-fighting superhero: “a reel of car crashes, falls from buildings, gunshots, explosions, even a lion’s attack. He had survived all of them, but they kept trying to kill him again and again.” Later in the novelette, it is revealed that Cray had suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in a sanitarium in the early 50’s (after a storeroom fire at a theater where Cray was making a promotional appearance resulted in the deaths of fourteen children). Cray reverts to his old character, though, after his apartment-building neighbor Julia, a gold-hearted prostitute, is murdered by a john who turns out to be a slasher known as the Fliptop Killer. Hollywood indeed is “a city of masks,” and Clay dons his (as well as his old superhero suit) to catch Julia’s killer. Along with murderous thugs, Cray has to contend with his personal demons, his doubts of his own sanity: was he “just a crazy old man out for a joyride through fantasy”? His investigative efforts lead him into a series of adventures (including a classic showdown with a group of harassing bikers at a bar, in which Clay is born anew as a hero, a “righter of wrongs and champion of justice,” even as he quotes “lines from old scripts”). Just as “Night Calls the Green Falcon” echoes the title of one of Clay’s popular serials, McCammon’s narrative is structured to reflect the thrilling, episodic nature of such fare, complete with chapter-ending cliffhangers. Clay, who faces daunting tests as a masked crusader against modern decadence, at one point professes: “I think I’d rather die as the Green Falcon than live as an old man with a screwed-up bladder and a book of memories. I want to walk tall, just once more.” The Green Falcon gets to do just that, without ending up levelled: the serial superhero ultimately bests the serial killer, winning himself a new following in the process. Melding gritty horror with more wholesome fantasy, McCammon’s “Night Calls the Green Falcon” is deservedly revered by the author’s legion of fans.


5. “He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” (1986; Halloween Horrors)

“All sorts of good things” have happened to Dan Burgess and his family after the move to the small town of Essex (following Dan’s job loss when the steel mill in Birmingham closed back in February). In April, the once-again-employed Dan is promoted “from gravel-shoveler to unit supervisor at the cement plant.” In August, Dan receives a letter stating that the Burgesses “won five thousand dollars in a contest at the Food Giant store.” In October, though, Dan learns the price of such good fortune, when he is summoned to a strange Halloween night meeting of community members. The meeting’s host, Roy Hathaway, explains that Halloween is uniquely observed in Essex. On this night, a devilish wish-list is left on Hathaway’s doorstep, specifying the sacrifices Essex’s families must make to the town’s “satanic trick-or-treater.” As Roy pitches, “You can have anything and everything you want, Dan, if you give him what he wants on one special night of the year.” The story’s title heralds the fate of those who don’t hold up their end of the bargain, and come knocking is exactly what the dark adversary does after Dan refuses to engage in familial mutilation (he’s been told that the Devil “wants the first joint of the little finger of your child’s left hand”). A harrowing scene of home invasion ensues, but when Dan attempts to shoot the intruder he discovers to his chagrin: “There were no shells in the shotgun. Jammed into the chambers were [his wife] Karen’s pumpkin candies.” When Dan instead clubs the intruder in the stomach with the butt of the shotgun, the trickster spews the grisly evidence of his previous feasting this Halloween night: “a mess of yellow canary feathers, pieces of a kitten, , and what might have been a piglet.” Reading like an autumnal holiday version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” “He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” offers some wicked fun. Its delightful frights continue right up to its shocking finale, one that forces a hapless Dan to concede that “the Devil sure could come up with one hell of a Halloween costume.”


Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top Ten Works of Short Fiction: #10, #9, #8

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.