Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A Review of Robert McCammon's "The Border" (plus two more)

Today, we will briefly look at The Border, Robert McCammon's sci-fi novel from 2015.  I had not intended to write a review of it; I'm curating a running post (or series of posts, more likely) about every book I read this year, and my intention was to simply give it a couple of paragraphs in that post.  Not because it's unworthy, mind you, but simply as a time-saving gambit.
I enjoyed the novel enough, though, that I felt like I had to get something on my blog about it sooner rather than later.
So here 'tis!
It's a crackerjack of a book that many reviewers have said is the closest McCammon has gotten to his '80s/'90s heyday since ... well, since the nineties, I guess.

Having not yet read the entirety of his output from the '00s and '10s, I can't speak to that for the time being.  But I can say without a doubt that The Border is something that any fan of McCammon's early work is apt to enjoy quite a bit.

The setup goes like this: a pair of alien races invade Earth as part of a long-running war over the border between their territory.  Earth has, in the normal course of its journey through the galaxy, become part of that border, and the aliens -- referred to by humans as the Cyphers and the Gorgons -- devastate the planet and its inhabitants in their squabble.

The novel itself begins some two years after that initial invasion took place, as a teenager with amnesia and some really gnarly bruises finds himself fleeing a battle between the warring aliens.  He finds shelter with a band of human survivors who are holed up in an apartment complex.

From there, the novel turns into something that many people might derisively refer to as YA, and if that's your conclusion I guess I can't fault you for coming to it.  I didn't feel as if McCammon was courting that audience in any way, however, and nothing about the book's marketing seems to have done so.  (By the way: good luck finding a copy of this book.  It was released by Subterranean Press, but only barely, and is out-of-print as fuck.)  It does not, for example, promise a never-ending stream of sequels.

This is by no means a perfect novel; I suppose I ought to admit that.  McCammon's prose is a little iffy in places.  This is a concern I've had with all of his recent books I've read, and I am convinced that he's suffering from poor editorial effort on somebody's part.  I totally understand how an author might mistakenly think the name is spelled "John Phillips Souza" instead of "John Philip Sousa," but an editor's job (among other things) is to catch mistakes like that and correct them.  That's the most egregious slipup that I noticed in The Border, but there are other places where the grammar and punctuation have gone awry to a degree that might be a bit surprising coming from an author of McCammon's caliber.

But hey, that ain't no dealbreaker.  Whereas things like that can and do get under my skin a bit, it's even more true that if the surrounding novel is engaging enough I am more than happy to roll right past editorial issues.  And this novel absolutely engaged me.  It's got strong characters, a compelling premise, and a propulsive plot; I would have liked to finish the book much more quickly than I did, but work prevented it.  Interest was sufficient; time was not.

The best bits of the book are possibly the occasions in which McCammon dives into the alien qualities of the various non-human characters.  He's especially engaging during a chapter in which the Gorgon queen puts a televangelist to ... interesting uses.  He's also great during a chapter in which we spend a bit of time in the viewpoint of one of the Cypher soldiers.

The ending of the novel has apparently been somewhat divisive for some readers.  I thought it was terrific, personally; McCammon's endings have rarely (if ever) failed to work for me, and The Border is no exception in that regard.

The edition I read was the signed limited edition, and it contains an afterword by McCammon in which he dishes on his beliefs that aliens are very much real (and quite possibly visiting us on the regular, what with the sheer number of UFO sightings).  I loved this stuff; there are other reasons for me to be glad that I sprung for that limited edition when it came out, but this reason is probably the best.
McCammon also notes that the novel grew out of an increasing feeling on his part that America's two major political parties have no actual interest in anything but themselves.  Whether because it is baked into the DNA of the novel or because I read it during the oh-so-much-more-divided year of 2018 I do not know, but I felt this anger throughout.

Let's have a look at some photos of the limited edition, because why not:
That's the slipcase, which I like because it actually has the title on it.  Sometimes that's not a given with limited editions, so, sadly enough, I always view it as a bonus.  Not that I'm a frequent consumer of limited editions; I'm not.  They make me grumpy more often than not.
The book itself is bound in leather, and while it's true that I'm often a grump with limited editions, it's equally true that I love a really well-made book.  This is a really well-made book.  I paid $125 for it, and many collectors would be horrified to know that I had actually HELD it and -- gasp! -- READ it!  Don't I know that that devalues the book?!?
Yeah, of course I do.  But I'm never selling this one, so ... so the fuck what?  Anyways, it's well-made enough that it doesn't really show too many signs of having been handled over the course of a couple of weeks.  It helps that at no point did I read it with Cheeto-fingers; but it also helps that the book was plain old well-made.  Worth $125 bucks?  Eh ... I'm less sure about that.  But hey, it's long spent, so let's not worry about that.
Here's the cover:

This edition was signed by McCammon, which is fine by me.  I'm not an autograph hound; nor am I the type of collector who wants a signature so as to increase the value of the book (see previous comments about having read the book).  That said, if a book IS signed, then that's obviously cool.  I got #355 of 500, so if anybody out there is keeping track, now you know.
There are six interior paintings by artist David Ho, of which I will show you one:

Speaking of cool, let's now take a look at a couple of recent McCammon releases from Cemetery Dance.  
First up:

Cemetery Dance released two slim McCammon books in early 2018; they came out on the same day, and since He'll Come Knocking at Your Door comes first alphabetically, I read it first.  Look, man, these decisions have to get made SOME way, right?

What we've got in this book is a reprint of a short story that originall appeared in the 1985 anthology Halloween Horror.  It was later collected in McCammon's 1989 book Blue World, which is where I first encountered it, back in the early days of my McCammon reading.  I dug the story then, and I dig the story now.

It's about twenty pages in length in Blue World, and given that Cemetery Dance is charging $25 for it, one might fairly ask if this is not a ripoff.

The answer: nope, not even a little bit.  And the reason for that is the excellent interior art by Erin S. Wells, which is plentiful (60ish pieces) and lovely.  It's all black-and-whites -- charcoals, maybe? (I don't know jack squat about art, it must be confessed) -- and that fits the tone of the story to a T.
Let's have a look at a few samples (all borrowed from the Cemetery Dance website):


The story itself is set on Halloween, and involves a man whose run of luck has been exceptional ever since he moved to a new town.  Turns out there's a reason for that ... and a price associated with it.  Try to get out of paying that price, and ... well ... he'll come knocking at your door.

And you do NOT want that, nosiree-bob.
Has this book gone out of print already?  Why, yes; yes, it has.
Which is also true of: 
Like He'll Come Knocking At Your Door, this is a slender volume that Cemetery Dance asked $25 for.  Like He'll Come Knocking At Your Door, it is both overpriced and worth every penny.  If that seems like a contradiction, welcome to the world of being a Cemetery Dance customer.
Bottom line is, I'm all for whatever keeps McCammon publishing books.  Especially if they're this good.
Longtime McCammon fans might be mildly nonplussed by this particular release.  It consists of three short stories; the book runs 101 pages, but it's a small book and I was able to read it in a single sitting without straining at all.
All three are stories from the eighties or early nineties, and two of the three were collected in Blue World, McCammon's only story collection to date.
There's more to it than that, though.  All three stories were from editor Charles L. Grant's four-volume series of shared-world anthologies, collectively known as the Graystone Bay books: 1985's Graystone Bay, 1987's Doom City, 1990's The SeaHarp Hotel, and 1994's In the Fog.  McCammon did not contribute to the fourth and final volume, but he placed the following stories in the first three, respectively:
  • "The Red House"
  • "Doom City"
  • "Beauty"
These are the contents of Tales From Greystone Bay.  Having never read anything else from the Grant anthologies, I cannot say for certain whether these are true standalone stories; but I can say for certain that they read as though they are.  I'd read "The Red House" and "Doom City" in Blue World long ago, for example, and had no clue that they bore any relation apart from both being in the same book and having been written by the same author.
I don't have much to say about the stories, except that all three are excellent.  "The Red House" in particular is McCammon at his finest.  It's the story of a teenager whose family lives on a street filled with gray houses; and then one day, in moves a mysterious family who paints their house bright red.  

McCammon is generally strong at short-story length, and while I didn't remember much of anything about "The Red House" thanks to my memory being shite, I did remember that I'd liked it a lot back in the day.  Now, having revisited it, I flat-out love it.  I want to hold off making any grand statements until such time as I've read Blue World again (and also checked out some of the uncollected stories of McCammon's I've never read at all), but I think I'd say "The Red House" just vaulted into my #2 position among his short stories.  #1 is "Children of the Bedtime Machine," which is exquisite; this ain't far behind it.
"Doom City" is a creepy tale about a guy who wakes up and discovers that his wife, lying in bed beside him, has turned into a skeleton in the night.  So did his poor dog, lying on the ground outside.  And maybe the world.
"Beauty" is a touching ghost story; too bad it hadn't been published in time to be included in Blue World, because I think a lot of McCammon fans in the nineties would have responded to it.  Many of them may have picked up The SeaHarp Hotel for it for all I know, of course; if I'd known about it, I would have.
Anyways, all three stories are now under one cover, and you might still be able to find a copy someplace if you've a mind to.  There is not a cornucopia of Erin S. Wells drawings to sweeten the deal; she provides three, which is considerably fewer than graced He'll Come Knocking At Your Door, but since this is not a picturebook, we need not be grumpy about that.
In the final analysis, I'd be hard-pressed not to say this is an excellent book.  But long-time McCammon fans probably have at least two of the stories already, and newer fans can find all three pretty easily, and probably for less than what this book costs.  That sounds as if I'm pooh-poohing the release; I'm not, but while it IS an excellent book, it is also somewhat redundant in some ways.
I hope y'all will not have begrudged me another trip to McCammonville so soon.  There's been a method to that madness, however; McCammon is doing a signing at the Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham next week to launch his new novel, The Listener, and unless some sort of calamity strikes between now and then I plan to be in attendance.  I kind of felt guilty about going and having read only a couple of his books published post-1992.
So I figured hey, let's see how many I can get through before then.  Turned out only to be The Border and the two Cemetery Dance books (which were 75% stories I'd previously read, but no matter), alas, but I'm very pleased to have read that one at last.
I will give you guys a report on the event either in the comments or when I write a review of The Listener.  
And in case you were wondering, the answer is: yes, I'm actually going to cover Stephen King on this Stephen King blog again at some point.  As I think I mentioned, my next King content will be a deep dive into Sleepwalkers.  Long overdue, and I'll be dadgum if I'm not looking forward to it!


  1. I don't have much I can contribute here, but thought you ought to know I am still checking up on ya, and kinda sorta read this one. I'm definitely one of those you mention in the last paragraph. See ya soon, hopefully. I've never seen Sleepwalkers, but I hear it is craptastic, so if I can ever find it, I'll be sure to partake.

    1. Oh, it's definitely craptastic, emphasis on the "crap" syllable of the word. But who knows? Maybe studying it closely will help.

  2. Nice review! I’ll try to attend the signing next week. I went to his LISTENER preview back in January, and had the time of my life.

    1. Every time I've been aware of one of those, I've been unable to attend. Fingers crossed nothing will go kerflunk this time.

  3. 1. I got a real nostalgic vibe from "He'll come knocking" and "Tales from Greystone Bay", and that's just going by the description. I think it's the illustrations that sell it. They remind me of all these kid-oriented horror anthologies I poured over in grade school. Wells' pictures sorta brought all that back.

    It's a literal coin toss if I can ever find a copy of these, yet here's hoping.

    2. "The Border" sounds intriguing. What gives me pause, however is that I've just finished "Sleeping Beauties". I enjoyed the book while reading it. The problem is after I set it down, I immediately started thinking about what I read, and found myself asking things like, "what if the characters written a bit differently, how about if the whole thing was told from Evie's perspective, making a story about a non-human character learning how to sympathize the human condition?

    To top it all off, I ran across an interview where Parent and Offspring chalked up any flaws in the book to "the current political climate".

    Let's just say when I stopped to process it all, their words caused my regards for the book to sink like a lead balloon dead-ending for the Marianas Trench.

    My worry, in other words, is that McCammon has made the same mistake. Still, I'm willing to keep an open mind.


    1. 1. I think you would probably like "He'll Come Knocking At Your Door" quite a bit, Chris. It's definitely got a sort of built-in nostalgic tone.

      2. Hmm. You might be right, but I'm not entirely convinced. I'm not familiar with the interview where Steve and Owen try to blame any flaws on the political climate, but I didn't get the sense from the novel that they'd intentionally gone political with it. They did bring up those aspects during some interviews, but I thought the novel itself was mostly free from grandstanding or hashtagging or whatever.

      I'd say the same of "The Border." I did read it somewhat through that lens, but suspected this was due more to my not being able to get away from those arguments than it was due to the novel itself. So when I read that in the coda, I was a little surprised to find that I'd gotten so close to the truth. But I don't think he oversells it; his primary focus is on the story and the characters -- the theme merely informs the novel, I think, rather than drives it.

    2. 2. To be fair, it just occurred to me that the same charges could also be lobbed at Hill's "The Fireman", and yet when I went in that direction, I couldn't really make those charges stand up. It like, well, wait, that's still like his best work yet, it's great etc.

      An alternate possibility is that with things like #MeToo still revving up, even if I never mean to, I'm still going in with this mindset where I'm constantly checking things when it gets to general Bird and Bee relations.

      It also occurs to me to wonder if this is an across the board thing, or is it just like this process that would affect hetero guys rather than anyone else.

      If it is a case of the whole gender zeitgeist having an effect on my thinking then, yeah, there's probably no logical answer to any of this.

      To be even more fair, that all that alternate what if of the novel being 100% non-human POV resulted in was Evie turning out to be Delirium and her meeting up with Dream and Deetee on a little league softball field somewhere.

      Which is why I'm not cut out creative writing, come to think of it.


    3. "It also occurs to me to wonder if this is an across the board thing, or is it just like this process that would affect hetero guys rather than anyone else."

      It's a good question. One of the questions I had -- and boy HERE'S a sign of the times (not in a bad way, either, necessarily) -- is how trans people were affected by the Sleeping Beauty phenomenon. Unless I blinked and missed it, the Kings did not address that at all; and I'm a bit surprised they haven't been criticized for it more.

      It feels to me like the both of them simply didn't think of it; or, if they did, they opted to just ignore it as a plot point lest it bog the novel down with questions for some readers.

  4. Hi! I just started my own blog and was looking for others to read when I came across this one. I'm a big Stephen King fan and I love your input on his stuff (Even though this post wasn't about him). I was wondering if you've ever done or ever plan on doing a post where you review his short stories?

    1. I've done a few posts about individual short stories and am theoretically working on one ranking all of the stories. But I remember so little about some of them that I don't know how to go about doing a ranking that is even semi-accurate to how I actually feel about them.

      So the answer to your question is both yes and no, both with question marks at the end.

      You can find a good ranking of the stories here, though:

      Where can we find your blog?


      I only just started, so far I've been reviewing movies, but I want to expand to books and video games too. I'm currently in the middle of reading Joe Hill's Strange Weather so that will probably be the first book I review. My reviews are mostly spoiler free. Check it out, I'd love your input