Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Review of "The Night Boat" [by Robert McCammon]

When last I wrote about Robert McCammon's work, the topic was Bethany's Sin, the author's second published novel.

Close readers will have noticed that I used a qualifier there: "published."  The reason for that is that while Bethany's Sin was the second novel McCammon published, it was the third one he wrote.  The Night Boat apparently preceded Bethany's Sin in terms of composition.

That factoid doesn't make much difference, but it seemed to be worth a mention.  And now that it's been mentioned, let's cease worrying about it, and start worrying about the rest of the novel.

For those of you who may not be familiar with The Night Boat, here comes a plot description: David Moore, a widower who survived the accident that claimed the lives of his wife and child, is diving in the waters off the Caribbean isle of Coquina when he stumbles across a semi-buried Nazi submarine.  He unwittingly sets off an explosive device which -- seemingly -- causes the sub to surface.  Once there, it becomes apparent to Moore and to the local authorities that the sub is in better shape than it really ought to be in, given how many decades the U-boat has been sunk.  The local voodoo priest seems to know something about this, and if you guess that that means trouble for everyone involved, then you guess correctly.

You won't have noticed, but I spent several minutes staring into space trying to figure out how to follow that paragraph, and the truth is that I find myself lacking much of anything to say about The Night Boat.  Don't worry; I'm going to fight through it and find something to say.  I just wanted you to know that for whatever reason, it ain't comin' easily tonight.

The reason for that is because the novel is ... okay.  It's not a bad novel; if it were a bad novel, I'd be able to find plenty of things to say about it.  The same would hold true if it was a great novel; it's not that, either.  Instead, it's ... okay.  Horrorphiles will probably enjoy it reasonably well, provided they don't expect anything revolutionary.  McCammon fans will have fun with it.  If your two favorite Ian Fleming novels happen to be Live and Let Die and Doctor No, you might get some kicks out of the Caribbean setting.  Otherwise, though, this is a merely decent book, so I'm hesitant to recommend it to anyone who doesn't fit the bill of one or more of those descriptions.

Having given my summary judgment, I must now sound the klaxon indicating that spoilers lie in the waters ahead.  If you plan to read the novel at some point and don't want to have the plot ruined for you, I'd suggest hopping aboard a lifeboat and waiting for someone to come pick you up; this ship is heading for deeper waters.

Notice the nautical theme I was working with there?  Yeah; I'll try to stop that now.

Let's talk about what works in the novel.  For me, that begins with the overall concept, which breaks down like this: during the Second World War, a German U-boat mounts a devastating attack on the Caribbean island of Coquina, killing many of its inhabitants and wreaking widespread destruction there.  A local voodoo priest, who is powerful in the ways of the dark arts, puts a curse on the ship and its crew: to endure as living corpses, unable to die, forever in torment.  This leads to the U-boat being stuck beneath the waters off the shores of Coquina, until one day decades later a diver unwittingly detonates an unexploded depth charge, which frees the ship.  The U-boat surfaces, and before long its zombie-like crew is prowling Coquina at night, looking for ship parts and human fluids.

That's a solid idea for a book, the best chapter of which is the one in which two of the main characters go into the recently-surfaced U-boat to see what might lie inside it. They find it to be in generally good condition, and are surprised and terrified to find that the mummified corpses standing up out of their seats and moving toward them with glowing red eyes.  Dark, confined places make for great scenes of horror and terror, and as far as dark and confined places go, a seemingly-abandoned submarine is awfully strong.

I'd also say that more or less every scene involving the zombie U-boat crew is excellent.  I was particularly struck by a scene in which a farmer hears his pigs screaming, and goes outside for a look-see.  It reminded me a bit of a scene in Bethany's Sin in which a hobo unwittingly crosses paths with some vicious ladies on horseback.  The scene with the pigs in The Night Boat doesn't end as unhappily for the farmer as things end for the hobo in Bethany's Sin, but I'd argue that the effect is somehow even more horrific.  Either way, McCammon was clearly quite good -- even this early in his career -- at writing scenes in which scary things happen outside at night.

The problems with The Night Boat lie, in my opinion, with some sloppiness in terms of the characters.  The protagonist, I suppose, is David Moore, the diver who accidentally sets the U-boat free.  He owns a hotel on Coquina, and is a widower whose wife and son died in a horrible sailing accident that he himself survived.  Moore is a decent character; McCammon gives us enough sympathy with him that we can invest in him reasonably well.  Unfortunately, he is mostly a bystander during the course of the novel.  He causes the U-boat to break free at the beginning, and he destroys it in the final chapter; between then, he really doesn't have much to do, in the active sense.

The second most important character is Steven Kip, the local constable.  Kip really ought to have been the novel's main character, because he takes a much more active role, seeing as how he can make actual decisions and move the plot along.  Kip reminds me a bit of Marcus Brody; indeed, The Night Boat reminds me of Jaws in more than a few places, and having the Marcus Brody figure not be the main protagonist seems like a genuine misstep.

It's not the only one; it isn't even the only one involving Steven Kip.  When Kip confronts Reverend Bonfiace (the voodoo priest whose curse of the U-boat crew is to blame for the revenants now terrorizing the island), we find out that Kip himself is possessed of the ability to channel the dark arts of voodoo magic.  It runs in his family, seemingly.  McCammon sets up the expectation that at some point, Kip is going to have to step up and claim his mantle, and that this will somehow figure into the novel's resolution.  That never happens; it's almost as if McCammon simply forgot Kip has voodoo in his blood.

There are other instances in which character elements are set up but never followed through upon.  The town's mayor shows up toward the beginning, and seems likely to figure into things in some sort of antagonistic manner; he shows up again briefly toward the end, but in a completely incidental way.
There is a prostitute character who appears in one scene with Moore near the beginning who I expected to end up being his love interest; instead, she disappears, only to be replaced by a different character who serves somewhat the same purpose later on.

Another example: a member of the U-boat crew who was captured by British soldiers show up, still alive in the normal sense of things.  He has no idea that his former crewmates are now bloodthirsty zombies, but he'll find out.  He's an interesting character, and when he shows up, I assumed that he would play some sort of vital role going forward.  Nope; he's basically just there to be eaten.

McCammon was a young writer, and here's what he had to say about some of his early work in a 1988 interview:

I always hear about writers who've written four books that end up in a drawer, and their fifth book is the one that gets published. The first book I ever wrote was published, flaws and all. For better or worse, I was allowed to learn to write in public. I think those books are simply early efforts. You have to take them as they are. I don't think they're very deep or anything; I think they're okay, but they simply represent where I was at that particular time.

It's hard to take McCammon to task much when looking at things from this perspective.  It's easier to take to task whoever his editor was at that time.  I'm no expert, but it seems to me that one thing an editor ought to be relied upon to do is to identify characters who do not end up serving the purpose they are seemingly designed to serve.

I'd also point out that two of the book's major characters make relatively late appearances: Jana Thornton, who gets sent to Coquina to investigate the U-boat on behalf of the British Museum, shows up about halfway through, and is seemingly on-hand merely to give Moore a female tagalong to protect; and Cheyne, a Carib man who is determined to destroy the ship as retribution for what it did to the island previously, shows up with about sixty pages left!

As such, The Night Boat ends up being a novel in which expectations are constantly defeated, and not in a playing-against-expectations sense, but in a failed-to-honor-expectations sense.

That said, the good scenes are good enough that they keep the novel moving; it's consistently readable, occasionally excellent, and, ultimately, worth reading for horror fans.  It's an undeniably slight work, yet more than thirty years later, it still retains some power.


  1. I wasn't familiar with this book until reading your review. The premise of the sunken U-boat struck me as similar to the basis of a Jack Finney novel called ASSAULT ON A QUEEN. The Finney book features a gang of crooks who salvage and refurbish an old U-boat to use as a vehicle for robbing the QUEEN MARY, a luxury liner.

    I came to ASSAULT ON A QUEEN after reading many of Finney's other works. Stephen King got me started on Finney, mentioning him favorably in DANSE MACABRE. I think Jack Finney is probably right up there with Matheson and Bradbury as an important influence on King.

    1. Assault on a Queen sounds like something I'm going to need to read one of these days! I've never actually read anything by Finney. I need to change that.

      Arghhhhh!!! Why can't I do nothing but sit around and read all the time!!!!?????

  2. That cover is pretty awesome, though!

    Got to read more of this guy. I'm making my way through Shadow Show, now, and I really enjoyed his contribution to that. Swan Song might be my first foray, unless you'd recommend a different one?

    1. From what I remember, Swan Song is terrific. If you want to go with something shorter, though, I'd also apply the adjective "terrific" to The Wolf's Hour and Boy's Life, just for starters.

      Glad you enjoyed the story in Shadow Show! I thought it was the best one in the book, personally...and that book is packed with good stories.

    2. Swan Song is his best. It is epic.

    3. It gets compared -- for obvious reasons -- to "The Stand" quite a lot. But my memory of it is that it's every bit as good as "The Stand" is, similarities or no similarities. I'm looking forward to rereading it to see how it holds up to my memory!

    4. Alas, no luck at my local. I'll have to order it.

      I did score a copy of Dandelion Wine by Bradbury, though - I've always meant to read that. The first 60 pages are great, I think I'll dig this one.

    5. That's a great book. I recommend chasing it with "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and/or "The Halloween Tree."

  3. I've read everything McCammon published through The Queen of Bedlam and I can say that the man never wrote a bad book. Some are better than others, but all were enjoyable.

    Having said that, I would rank Night Boat near the worst of his work. Perhaps Baal was not quite as good as Night Boat. The phonetics drove me nuts and all of the characters were a bit thin.

    Taking in Boy's Life right now. I recommended it to my book/scotch/cigar club, so I'll be getting some feedback from others on it, most of whom are college professors. I loved Boy's Life.

    1. I think -- THINK -- I prefer "Baal" to "The Night Boat." It's sloppier by far, but I think the high points went a little higher, for me.

      Both are enjoyable, though. McCammon considers them to be somewhat amateurish novels, but I think that's an overly harsh assessment; they are definitely imperfect, but are entertaining despite their flaws.

      I'm with you on "Boy's Life"; that's a terrific book. Someone needs to turn it into a movie and make McCammon a star! High past time for that, I'd say.

  4. My first thought was, either Tarantino or Rodriguez could do something with this, maybe with Joe r. Landsdale's help.

    This review just sort of confirms that in a way. Tbe fair, that judgement was made just from review thecover promo.


    1. Rodriguez, maybe; Tarantino, definitely not (unless MAJOR tinkering was done with the plot and dialogue).