Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Review of Robert R. McCammon's "Mystery Walk"

Mystery Walk, published in 1983, was Robert R. McCammon's fifth novel, and his first to be published in hardback.

It's the story of the first 21 or so years in the life of Billy Creekmore, who has inherited his mother's ability to see ghosts and ease the troubles of the ones who have not yet managed to pass on from the earthly realm into the more peaceful places that wait beyond.  The novel opens with Billy's mother (she's very pregnant with him), progresses on to his first childhood experiences of the supernatural, and eventually turns into a coming-of-age story that involves his going out into the world to try to figure out the purpose of his "mystery walk" through life.
This was the novel that turned me into a McCammon fan.  I'd forgotten that until rereading it, but it's true; I'd thought it was Boy's Life that had turned that trick, but that was a failure of memory on my part.  No, it was this one; and not for the reasons you might think.

More on that in a bit, though.
The novel itself is an ambitious one, running precisely 400 pages in length (in hardback) but stuffing in enough story to have justified being perhaps twice that long.  It bounces from one thing to another in episodic manner that probably doesn't work in an objective sense, but is just as likely to seem thrilling if you buy into the novel.  I certainly bought into it upon initial reading in high school; I'm less able to do that nowadays, but almost all of the individual components still work for me even if they never quite manage to coalesce into a cohesive whole.
Among the episodes in the novel:
  • a childhood encounter with the ghost of a murdered childhood friend;
  • a trip to stay with grandmother for a while, so she can teach Billy how to use and understand his talents;
  • a visit from a church-revival tent-preacher, which prompts the ostracization of Billy and his family;
  • a lumber-mill accident that leads to one of Billy's first true tests;
  • Billy's continued ostracization during high school, leading to a tragic incident after a school dance;
  • Ku Klux Klan violence;
  • an extended stint working in a "ghost show" in a traveling carnival;
  • occasional peeks into the lives of the tent preacher and his son (Wayne), whose stories are connected to Billy's in some ways that will develop over the course of the novel;
  • a trip to Chicago to spend some time at a "death survival studies" research center;
  • an extended stint in which Wayne goes to live with a really fat guy who owns a record company and has mob connections who occasionally produce snuff films for him;

and so forth.

It's a lot.

Coming back to the novel after all these years, I could not remember much of anything about it when I sat down to begin it.  I began remembering it pretty quickly once it got going, though; and yet, despite that, I couldn't remember much of anything about where the plot ended up going.  More or less everything after a big transient-hotel fire scene was a complete blank for me; and that's all of the stuff with Krespin, the fat-guy record mogul and quasi-mobster.  Despite a few good scenes of gore and ghoulishness, most of that aspect of the novel failed to land for me back in 1991, and it still fails to land for me in 2018, too.
I pretty much love everything leading up to that, too; and, indeed, also love the coda with which the novel ends.  So while it does take an extended dip in quality for me during the final third of its length, this is two-thirds of a pretty fine novel.  If I were ranking the first five McCammon books, I'd place this at #3, ahead of The Night Boat and Bethany's Sin but probably behind Baal and definitely behind They Thirst.
And yet, it's handily my personal favorite of the five.
Before I explain why, let's have a look at the 1991 Ballantine paperback, and its awesome Jim Thiesen cover art:
I've mentioned before in this blog that when I began reading McCammon's work, it was because I'd become hooked on Stephen King and had gone searching for similar authors; and I've also mentioned that despite all of this, I was very much still a fraidy-cat.  These novels worked on me.
And that cover terrified me.  It terrified me so much that Mystery Walk was the last McCammon novel I read of the ones that existed at that time.  I bought and read them all at some point between the release of Mine in 1990 and Boy's Life in 1991.  I can't remember which one I started with; probably Swan Song, but I wouldn't swear to it.
What I will swear to is that every time I finished one and looked at them all to decide which one to pick up next, I looked at that cover on Mystery Walk, shuddered, and picked something else.
Eventually, though, I'd read everything; I'd even picked up Mine in hardback finally, as well as the McCammon-edited anthology Under the Fang.  I'd likely read a few of the McCammons two or three times (Swan Song, The Wolf's Hour, Stinger), and may even have dived into the world of Dean Koontz for a while.
That cover, man.
It spooked me something fierce.
Eventually, though, I decided to power my way through it.  See, there was something about it that was calling to me, a story detail that I knew about only via reading the back cover.  Let's take a look (the actual image is from the 1984 paperback, not the 1991 edition, but the text is the same):
Wait, I remember thinking the first time I read that back-cover summary, does that say this book takes place in Alabama?!? 
You might or might not know this, but I am a lifelong Alabamian, and I think this might have been the first time -- with the possible exception of To Kill a Mockingbird (assigned in school, though, so it didn't count in the same way) -- that I'd ever encountered a novel set in my home state.
I've been unable to recall how it was that I eventually found out that McCammon himself was also an Alabamian, and, what's more, a graduate of the University of Alabama (located in my home town of Tuscaloosa, and my own future alma mater).  I have been trying to remember that all during this reread of Mystery Walk, and my best theory is that some book-store clerk might have told me; I don't think that's it, though, and if so, I'm fairly certain that means that I read it in some article about the novelist Winston Groom, another UA alumnus, and one who became a BIG deal around these parts when a 1994 movie based on his novel Forrest Gump became a national phenomenon.
The specifics of that are probably lost to me, but that's okay; thanks to rereading Mystery Walk, I now remember the many ways in which that novel bonded me to McCammon.  There now follows a list of things in this book that made me feel almost as if McCammon had written it specifically for me:
  • Though the novel is primarily set in the fictitious town of Hawthorne (near the not-even-vaguely fictitious town of Fayette), there are references to Tuscaloosa sprinkled throughout the text.  Tusca-freakin'-loosa!  Now, bear in mind that (a) I was a voracious reader, and (b) that I had never seen Tuscaloosa mentioned in a novel before.  Again, To Kill a Mockingbird might be an exception to that, but since that was homework, it didn't really count as reading.  (This made sense in my brain both then and now; if it makes considerably less sense in yours, trust me, I get it.)  Reading James Bond novels and Star Trek novels and movie novelizations and Dune and horror novels, THAT'S what counted as reading.  And by God, there it was, in a ROBERT McCAMMON novel!  Tuscaloosa!  Proof that it existed, and was therefore real to somebody who wrote the sort of books I liked to read!
  • Not just Tuscaloosa, either, but plenty of other cities that I'd either visited or was familiar with by having heard their names mentioned repeatedly: Fayette, Birmingham, Andalusia, Montgomery, Mobile, even Auburn!  And Moundville!!!  Fucking Moundville, man!  If McCammon had mentioned one of the towns where my grandparents lived (Clanton, Creola, Saraland), I'd probably have imploded in some fashion.
  • Early on, a family named "Mimms" is mentioned.  After marrying, one of my mother's sisters became a Mims.  One "m" instead of two, but still, that may as well as been her husband's people McCammon was mentioning.
  • Billy Creekmore is part Choctaw thanks to his maternal grandmother.  There's Choctaw blood in my mother's side of the family, too.  Billy is a quarter, whereas I'm a mere sixteenth, but still; that's a strong point of identification when you're reading a novel at 16.
  • Early on, Billy visits a house that has been the site of a mass-murder in which an entire family is wiped out.  When he goes back to the house, it's deserted and is slowly being turned over to nature.  One of the things I most feared in those days was old abandoned houses; still is, probably.  We'd drive past a lot of these on the way to visit my grandparents in Clanton, and abandoned stores, too; and they always creeped me out.  Sometimes I couldn't get them out of my mind.
  • The University of Alabama gets mentioned, as does Bryce Hospital (though not by name) and the Crimson Tide (the university's football team).  The name "Tutwiler" is mentioned; it's in the context of a hotel in Birmingham, but there's also a Tutwiler dormitory on the UA campus, and I'd actually stayed there while attending a basketball camp a few years previously.  So that mention of the very name "Tutwiler" called out to me almost personally.
  • There is a mention of turning dry corncobs into pipes; this is a thing my grandfather used to do.
  • The Alabama State Fair is mentioned a few times.  It was in Birmingham when I was a kid, and we usually went every year.  I -- a fearful young lad, as I've mentioned -- was almost always too scared to actually ride any of the rides, but there was one section of the fair that absolutely terrified me.  There were a bunch of attractions -- dark rides, mostly, I assume, although maybe a few other types as well -- that had garish, lurid scenes of horror painted on their outside walls.  It required immense courage for me to even walk past these things, which we always did, for some reason; I think maybe they were at the back of the fairgrounds, and had to to get out, or something.  I don't know.  Anyways, they took root in my mind; those walls painted with scary scenes of skeletons, bats, etc.  Here's a Pinterest page that'll show you the kind of thing I'm talking about.  No big whoop, unless you're a kid who's scared of everything, but above ALL is scared of being scared; those painted walls, and the sounds coming from inside the rides, man...  Anyways, I was reading Mystery Walk probably a solid half a decade after the last time I went to the Alabama State Fair, but just the fact of it partially being set there took me back to being that kid.  The novel doesn't really cover those types of rides in any way, but that was okay; my mind filled in those blanks.
  • Billy rents a Gremlin at some point when he needs a car.  My mother drove a Gremlin when I was a kid!  A weak connection, but nevertheless one that landed with me.

  • So did eating Zingers and Lorna Doones, both of which I must have consumed by the thousands during my childhood.  Uh, okay; during my adulthood as well.

Heck, even a reference to Alabama Power made me feel like the book had been written for me.
This sort of thing wasn't the point at which my connection with McCammon's fiction was formed, though; it was the point at which it was solidified.  I'd liked all of his books, and loved most of them (Bethany's Sin was a mild exception, as was Mine); I knew that he was a writer whose work connected with me, even though I'd probably not have been able to think of it in those terms.
But upon reading Mystery Walk, his work was put in a whole new light for me; and then, later, when I found out he was a UA graduate, the explanation for that new context arrived.  There was a reason -- apart merely from skill and talent -- that McCammon's work meant something to me.  Tenuous though it might have been, we shared a connection.  Multiple connections.  He'd ridden in a Gremlin at some point, probably; and eaten a Zinger or two; and been to Moundville.  He knew that people named Mims lived in the world!
And maybe at some point, he'd been scared of a lot of the same things I was scared of.  That's why his books scared me; and because of that, it explained why those books -- and other books like them -- scared me in a good way.
Maybe it's just those memories talking, but upon rereading the novel I'd still have to say that many of McCammon's scariest scenes live within Mystery Walk.  I think I think it's his scariest novel, and yeah, maybe it's just that cover still working on me saying that, but then again ... maybe not.
Either way, it takes me back to being that ten-or-eleven-year old kid, walking past rides at the State Fair that looked a bit like these:

Not exactly the most terrifying things you've ever seen, probably.  But let me tell you, if you'd tried to drag 1985 Bryant into one of those, he'd have probably started crying.
I think 2018 Bryant might cry, too; but for very different reasons.  Not because he was sacred, but because for a few moments, he was time-traveling, and remembering being scared.
I felt that way through most of this reread of Mystery Walk, and in case you're wondering: yeah, that's a good thing.
I'd sort of planned to have a lot more to say about the novel's contents themselves, but that will have to wait for some other version of Bryant to come along.  A task for 2019 Bryant, perhaps!
See, I've already determined that once I finish this McCammon readthrough I'm currently on, which will bring me up to date with all of his novels from Speaks the Nightbird (his 2002 novel that ended a ten-year hiatus) on, only one of which I've ever read before, I'm going to launch a new blog that is specifically focused on his books.  Then, I'm going to circle back to the beginning and do deep-dive posts on them all.  They deserve the attention, and -- as I've mentioned before (in a somewhat hypocritical manner) -- McCammon definitely does NOT deserve to be viewed merely as a subset of a Stephen King fan's King fandom.  
We're a year or two out from that actually happening; okay, maybe even three or four.
But that's a thing that WILL be happening, and when it does, you folks'll be the first to know.
In the meantime, though, I'll continue posting cursory reviews here.  And next up will be Usher's Passing, hopefully in just a few weeks.


  1. All of these pictures are very metal. Even the Lorna Doones and Zingers.

    Very interesting stuff! When you get to the deep dives, I may take a few with you.

    1. I had to resist the urge to do on an Internet-scouring mission to find EVERY scary-dark-ride photo I could locate. If I hadn't restricted myself to merely the first few I saw, I'd have spent hours falling down that particular rabbit hole.

      Metal indeed!

  2. I have Swan I think I'm gonna have to start collecting his other stuff. I already knew he had a good reputation but his novels didn't seem scary when I read the synopses. But perhaps, like with King, just "being scary" is not where their value begins and ends.

    1. To be fair, a lot of his books post-1992 are outside the horror genre. Not that I care; I don't. Once a writer has me, that writer can go wherever they want to go.

      But yeah, no denying it -- it was the horror element that brought me to his work initially.

    2. That's true of King for me. It seems like no other writer has been able to hook me so that I'll follow them anywhere. Yet, anyway. We'll see if that's about to change.

    3. I don't have too many favorite authors who I'd follow anywhere, but I guess there are a few. Although really, when I think about it, I don't know that any of them except King have really put that to the test. I mean, I love Larry McMurtry, but most of his novels are either traditional Westerns or are modern-day dramas set in the West. Not a huge amount of variation there; dude never wrote, like, a cop novel or whatever. But I'd probably have read it.

      Anyways, in the final analysis, I find King and McCammon to be very different writers. They have points of commonality, of course, but King's prose is much stronger, whereas McCammon might be said to be the stronger plotter. I don't think there's any guarantee that a reader who loves one would love the other. I do, though!

  3. I've never had the same experience any time King happened to mention bits and pieces of Texas. However I think there might be a reason for that.

    For starters, they're just passing mentions; bits and pieces, in other words.

    The second reason depends on King as a regional writer. Whether the final product is good or not, every story set in his native New England is able to dredge up at least a bit of atmosphere, due to the simple fact that King is playing to his strengths as a writer of place.

    With that in mind, is it any wonder if I have no reaction to the Lone Star State in the King-verse?

    Anyway, this review did the job of making me want to hunt down a copy. Good work!

    Also, okay, fine, I whined like a little %i#2! during my single traverse through one of those attractions. I'm just wondering if that style of advertising is used anymore. The pictures I've seen of recent ones all have a more sleek and streamlined look.

    I suppose that approach has its advantages, the customer will have his imagination sparked by what he can't see, and is only implied. Shirley Jackson, if I recall, knew how to put that strategy to good use.

    Still, there's just an element of fun in those old posters that I think subtracts from the whole deal today. The story of modern times in a nutshell.


    1. Aint't it the truth? Well, it's the truth from OUR perspective, at least. I'm sure kids today probably feel much the same as we did then; their nostalgia will be specific to this era, and that's probably as it should be.

      Glad to hear I'm not the only one who was reduced to screams and tears by that sort of thing. Granted, I don't think I ever got taken through one. I'd have pitched such a fit I doubt anyone would have tried!