McCammon’s Swan Song — Apocalypse Then


McCammon’s Swan Song: A review


Swan SongColliding worlds, epidemics, vampires, aliens, zombies–writers just love ending the world and we just love reading about how it all goes down.

Everyone dies, except us–or those characters who are our surrogates. One particularly gruesome ending has fallen out of favor–World War III with its mushroom clouds and the President in the War Room agonizing on whether or not to take the Ruskies with us into that bad night of a nuclear winter. He always does.

Because the world is different now from the world of the mid-eighties when McCammon wrote Swan’s Song, what limited appeal this novel possessed has all but evaporated. I’m a boomer and all boomers relate to the fear of global nuclear war; we grew up with it. McCammon renders the nuclear nightmare in vivid detail, focusing on characters struggling to free themselves from environments that saved their lives but now threaten to become tombs.

One particular bit of irony is a survivalist enclave dug into a mountain.

There’s a gym, a movie theater, apartments, etc. and as always happens–the best laid plans fall flat. A whole mountain collapsing on you–take that survivalists. No control of your fate–all luck of the draw. Unlike Stephen King’s The Stand, another end-of-the world scenario, we’re not invested in McCammon’s characters. I think that’s because he devotes so much of the novel to showing us how devastating an all out nuclear war would be, not just to humans, but to everything.

It’s hard to say who the protagonist is– I guess it would be Swan–a young girl who can talk to plants.

It is Swan who will save the world by giving pep talks to trees, grass, crops etc, spreading seeds and re-growing where ever she goes–a kind of “Swannie Appleseed.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The antagonist, similar to The Stand’s Randall Flagg is a devil with a small “d.”

The devil keeps whining about how it’s now “his” party and he gets to decide what happens, which is everybody and everything dies.

I kept wondering–if he gets his way, what will he do for entertainment when everyone is gone. Of course he doesn’t win–Swan has his number and puts him in his place. This novel was long–way too long–over 800 pages. McCammon could have carved out at least two hundred pages of that fruit and nut ingredient necessary to every apocalypse mix–the military mad men, the crazies and the religious zealots. The battle scenes were detailed and endless.

In terms of characters–there’s lots of pat psychoanalysis but not much in the way of real people to care about. Like King’s The Stand, McCammon’s Swan Song indicates he doesn’t care a lot for the military or much in the way of government.

I know McCammon can write–I read Boy’s Life years ago and it was such a pleasure. I intend to read some of his other novels and expect I’ll enjoy them. One thing–I’m glad that threat of a nuclear winter is diminishing. On top of everything, there would be nothing to eat–unless of course you’re a zombie.

Since I first posted this review, I have read several books by Robert McCammon. What an amazing body of work! I particularly liked the premise of The Border, the way he used setting and culture in Stinger and I loved his Matthew Corbett mysteries, set in the New York of the 18th Century. Fascinating! I look forward to the next installment.


Moonlight becomes you; it goes with your lair


The Last Werewolf: A review


last werewolf  THE LAST WEREWOLF, written by British author, Glen Duncan, was published in 2011. THE LAST WEREWOLF is the eighth novel for Duncan and a sequel, TALLULAH RISING followed in 2012. As might be expected, Marlowe, the protagonist of THE LAST WEREWOLF, is a werewolf–“the last werewolf ” he informs the reader in the first person narrative.

The opening sentence announces that second to the last werewolf (“The Berliner”) just bit the dust courtesy of Grainer, a “Hunter.”

Grainer, a man with small hard eyes who has Native American ancestors works with WOCOP, an organization that keeps track of supernatural shenanigans, including vampires (down to fifty “families’) and werewolves–down now, to only Marlowe. Marlowe killed and ate Grainer’s father, so it’s not just business; it’s personal. Marlowe is funny, literate and when it comes to the low down on the lupines and the vamps, very informative. Even though, by his own admission Marlowe has killed, eviscerated, intentionally delighting in the terror he causes before he chows down on his victims (over two thousand and counting) Marlowe is shaken by the news that Grainer beheaded “The Berliner” rather than just shooting him with a silver bullet. Why so squeamish?

I wished I liked Marlowe and cared whether or not he lives to feed under another full moon. I don’t.

Besides creating Marlowe’s vivid dark humor, Mr. Duncan’s use of language is dazzling. “The hand I lifted to wipe my face was the impatient ghost of the other hand, the hybrid thing, heavy, elegant, claw-tipped.” He employs numerous allusions, including quotes throughout- such as Blake’s “Did He who made the lamb make thee?” There’s a semester’s worth of literature in these nods: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“We’re like Connie and Mellor’s at the end, apart, chaste,…”) The ill-fated Harley, Marlowe’s “familiar” tells him “You’ll actually be flying private charter as Matt Arnold.” Duncan’s style is “Literary” with a capital “L.”

Marlowe is over two hundred years old–middle-aged by werewolf standards.

Werewolves can live to be four hundred or so. Along with literature, we get nods to what’s current in 2012–Obama’s “Audacity of hope,” “American Idol,” and so on. Duncan also gets the jump on his critics by having Marlowe say, “I can think back to a time when something like this would have annoyed or at least amused me, that the democracy Westerners truly got excited about was the one that made every blogging berk a critic and every frothing fascist a political pundit.”

I particularly liked Duncan’s knack for boiling down complex concepts into a sentence or two.

In describing his state of mind after meeting Tallulah, a “she” werewolf, Marlowe says “I’ve stopped abstracting. This is love. You stop bothering about the universal, the general, get sucked instead into the local and particular. When will I see her again? What shall we do today?” His prose is lush–so lush that at times I found it intrusive–then plain annoying. “The little combat flurry had left me with a post-adrenaline heaviness, worsened now by the predictability of the picture revealed by joining the dots.” Sometimes you say wow and other times–enough already.

Okay–so here’s where I get all “Church Lady” (a 1980’s Saturday Night Live character for those of you who don’t know) on you.

Marlowe takes pains to provide us with his sexual preferences–detailing the ins and outs of his encounters with prostitutes–especially the “ins.” He describes various orifaces–“the moist crinkle of Madeline’s anus,’ “I had oral, vaginal and anal sex with her (in that order; I repeat, I’m not a misogynist.)” After meeting Tallulah, his she-wolf-dream-girl–“I wanted to go back to her clean and put my nose in her cunt and my tongue in her sweet young asshole.” All righty. I think we get it! I’m not a prude. My second book has a considerable amount of erotica. But, in my opinion Marlowe’s obsession is a tad overkill, pardon the pun. TMI people! You get the feeling that Duncan’s put a lot of himself into the old wolf-man. Whatever. I suppose that you can make the case that dogs greet each other by sniffing rear ends so it stands to reason that Marlowe might find them a particular focal point.

I have two structural issues with this book and one on theme.

Duncan introduces the idea of “Quinn’s book.” Quinn’s book might have information on the origin of werewolves. Written by a 1930’s archeologist named Quinn, Marlow has been seeking it for years. After using it as a carrot to lure Marlowe into cooperating with vampires who now have it under lock and key, Duncan just drops the device, having Marlowe decide that to know how werewolves originated is pointless. No fair–Duncan. Marlowe may not care, but we, the readers do.

Marlowe, as a character, doesn’t change.

Although he finds in Tallulah a reason to live, she’s really an extension of him. It’s self-love and the same narcissism that allowed Marlowe to choose to live by inflicting gory horrifying death on thousands enables him to be “in love” with someone who can share his hedonistic existence.

By creating an antagonist like Grainer, Duncan fails to have Marlowe come to terms with his prolonged existence.

The monotony and the cost to his humanity can be avoided because Marlowe’s wits and resources are engaged by being the object of “The Hunt.” This book was very interesting and at times, engrossing.

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Duncan was slumming–showing the genre world how it’s done. In the process, he engaged my brain, but never my gut. I just never cared, and in fiction, that’s what keeps you turning the pages.


The Passage: Dronely the Lonely


The Passage: a Review


Okay you’ve been warned about THE PASSAGE. So trudge along with me.

ImageThe Passage is a novel written by Justin Cronin, a professor of English at Rice University. It was published by Random House in 2010. Before I began to read The Passage, I read the back page of acknowledgements where the list contained many famous names like Ridley Scott, higher ups at Random House, Creative Artists Agency, Orion, Ballatine–you get the picture–this guy knows people. A look at his bio gives a hint as to why. He’s written some award winning material and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop –a great place to network I’m sure. Plus, Justin Cronin is cute. All of those Rice girls  I think, would agree.

I don’t recommend The Passage.  Here’s an overview of the book and as I read the last page, my reasons for wanting to throw it against a wall:

The book is 766 pages long.  The first 208 pages are really, really good–almost brilliant. The story begins with a five year-old girl (Amy), the child of a friendless single mother who abandons her at a convent. There’s a nun named Lacey, who is a survivor of civil war in Sierra Leone.  Hoping to care for Amy and keep her at the convent, Lacey tells little white lies.

Then, the narrative jumps to first person in emails where we learn about  research going on in the Amazon jungle. They’ve found a batman statue down there.  I don’t mean the super hero–this thing sports fangs and attitude. The US military is involved and in a horror novel, that’s never good. The scientists aim to conquer death (one named Lear is grieving the death of his wife). Several scientists are killed and eaten by vampire bats; we’re left wondering what the scientists found before they became bat food.

We skip to a secret research facility. The military is busy with Lear’s help, experimenting on a dozen condemned murderers. This segment, with its seeping creeping dreams, experienced by the sex-offender personnel, as they record vitals and clean up the guano of the new “bat men,” who hang upside down in their cells, rivals the vampire dreams of Salem’s Lot. It’s very scary.

Two FBI agents recruit the death row inmates and this is where Cronin’s skill really shines. We meet Carter, a bewildered little man who is on death row for accidentally killing his benefactress, a housewife who rescued him from under a bridge and gave him work, a home and dignity. Carter, a gentle soul, accepts his fate. Wolfgast, one of the FBI men, grieves the death of his infant daughter. Wolfgast reluctantly recruits Carter, recognizing that the man is not a killer.  Carter’s journey to the research facility is Cronin at his best; we see Carter’s enjoyment–amazed at the America that his poverty and friendlessness denied him.

Then, Lear wants to test the serum on a child.  Wolfgast and Doyle, his partner, are sent out to find one who won’t be missed. Back to Amy. Lacey takes Amy to the zoo. Amy makes the TV news when all the animals freak out and try to follow her. To Lacey, Amy explains cryptically” “They know what I am.” Okay, except that this whole segment is never explained to the reader and it happens way before any of the events that might have led to Amy’s weird behavior. You assume that it, along with Lacey’s prescience will be given an explanation. Not.

Wolfgast tries to rescue Amy but is stopped by trigger-happy government guy Richards, a character who is the poster child for overkill–he kills all the nuns for pete’s sake. The writing has been so good so far that you forgive the cartoon excess. The best two hundred pages ends with Wolfgast rescuing Amy after she’s been given a giant dose of refined bat juice. The convict batmen get free and kill everyone. Somehow, Lacey tracks them down (she wasn’t home when Richards killed the other nuns) and we leave her as she distracts the batmen (later called virals) so that Amy and Wolfgast can get away. The last page of these 208 ends with Amy being alone with no one to protect her.

The rest of the book–all 548  pages begins almost one hundred years after the virals have pretty much killed the world. It centers on the “Colony” a small group of survivors located in California. Exposition is in the form of a document presented at a “World Conference” in “1015 av.” Okay, so we know that there’s a world and conferences and that mankind as a global civilization ultimately survives. Now back to the document–a first person account written by a woman who was the oldest person at the “Colony’. Her name was Ida. Think The Stand’sMother Abigail.” Ida makes awful tea and blurts out remarks like she knows what’s going to happen. She doesn’t. The Colony survives by vigilance and keeping the lights on at night to keep out the virals and protect the “Littles” (as in Lord of the Flies “little-uns”) who stay segregated in a schoolhouse. Unfortunately, the batteries are dying and so in desperation, the “Watchers” turn on the forbidden radio, hoping to signal for help. It comes in the form of a teenage girl–Amy who, after a hundred years has managed to hit puberty.  She can’t talk.

I could name some of the zillion characters who continue the story, which jumps from one character to the other in a third person narrative. Not one pops out. Cronin doesn’t give enough weight to any of them to make us care. I kept waiting for the writing to get better–to get anywhere near the caliber of the first section.  There’s a series of forays, attacks, discoveries and we finally learn that all forty something million virals are telepathically connected to one or the other of the original twelve convicts–like giant bee colonies and each convict is a queen bat-bee. If you can kill one of the original, then those connected will remember who they are and will hang around until the sun comes up until they burn and then fly to that great hive in the sky. Right. This all happens at the very end and what really frosts my shorts is that Cronin leaves us hanging. He doesn’t tell us how or when the world is saved. In fact, the last “document” presented at the “World Conference” reveals the assumed death of one of the major characters. We don’t know for sure because Cronin has a habit of killing someone off at the end of a segment then beginning the next segment by informing us that they were rescued by some fluke. This is lazy writing. Cronin knows better and we the readers deserve better. The ending was very frustrating and I felt had.

Unless you want to be really really annoyed, I don’t recommend The Passage.

Congratulations on your success Mr. Cronin. Next time give us a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.