Monday, March 12, 2018

A Review of Robert McCammon's "The Listener"

Today, I've got a review of the new Robert McCammon novel The Listener, which was released by Cemetery Dance on February 27.
Before we get to the review itself, I wanted to mention that on the day of the book's release, I was lucky enough to meet McCammon at a signing hosted by the Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham.  I suppose you may feasibly care nothing about that; if so, you are more than welcome to scroll down to the photo of The Listener, after which the review will begin.
Everyone else: assuming you don't mind indulging me a bit farther, I request that you click here to read a bit about the Alabama Booksmith.
Go on, it won't bite!
Isn't that a cool bookstore?  I'd never been there prior to this McCammon event, and I intended to take some photos that I could use in this very blog post.  I got there and got to browsing and chatting with other attendees, and I plain old forgot about taking any pictures.  I kind of remembered it on the way to my car, but thought it might be weird if I walked back in and started snapping photos.  Sorry about that!  Hopefully I will have occasion to visit them again at some point, and can rectify my blunder at that time.
Here's a link to their website, and I'm sure they would be more than happy to mail a book to you anywhere in the world.
I wasn't sure how events like this signing worked, so I labored mentally over whether I could/should take some of my old McCammon books and ask the man himself to sign them.  I worry about shit like that.  I don't want to breach etiquette if I can possibly help it, and this is especially worrisome when I don't even know what the etiquette is.  I figured it'd probably be okay, since I would be picking up a copy of The Listener while I was there ... but I wasn't sure.  So I left the four books I'd brought in the trunk of my car and went inside to get the lay of the land.
The event began at 5pm, and I went in about 4:40 so I could look around for a while.  I ended up buying two books:

El Paso, I bought as a gift for my father.  He ain't getting it until Father's Day, though, so don't mention it to him.  Plus, I have to say, I'm tempted to just keep it for myself; it sounds like the sort of thing I'd enjoy.
As for The Border, I already had a copy of that novel; but (as I mentioned in my review) I have the limited edition.  This is the mass-market edition, which apparently turned out to not be all that mass, since it is thoroughly out of print.  I didn't feel as if I could pass up the opportunity to get a copy of this edition, since who knows if such an opportunity will ever come again.  They had two copies, and I was strongly tempted to buy both, but I feared that this might make me look like a crazy person.  Plus, I was doing my damnedest not to spend money like a hog-wild fool.  Trust me, the temptation was there; this is the kind of store that makes you want to buy books by people you've never even heard of, not to mention by the ones you have.
Anyways, my books purchased and my copy of The Listener (which I'd pre-ordered) retrieved, I got in line for the signing.  I immediately overheard people talking about the literal sacks of books they had brought to be signed; one lady, on a previous visit, had evidently brought literally every McCammon novel she owned (which was every McCammon novel), and he had graciously signed every single one.  I looked around, and sure enough, several other folks were clutching older books.  So I turned around, walked back to my car, stowed my new purchases and retrieved my older McCammons.  As I walked out, I neurotically explained to one of the store's staff members what I was doing and she just sort of nodded in a "cool, thanks for the info, nerd" kind of way.  Not rudely -- the staff seems awesome -- but in the way you nod when you've seen a thing a gazillion times, up to and including the person you're observing do it thinking that they are the first person in the history of ever TO do it.
Looks, folks, here's the bottom line: I'm not exactly the most socially graceful person you've ever met.  A shocker, I'm sure, but it's true.  I never suck at it AS much as I expect to ... but I do suck at being in places I've never been, especially if I'm solely around people I don't know.  So did I trip and drop my books as soon as I walked back in the door...?
No!  But I did drop one of them, minus the tripping.  I dropped it right in front of a lady at the back of the line, with whom I had a good conversation while we stood waiting.  The book I'd dropped was the paperback version of Blue World, and she noticed it and we talked for a while about the cover art for that Pocket Book series of paperbacks, of which Blue World was seemingly the final entry.  She mentioned that the cover to Swan Song had scared her silly back in the day, and I mentioned the fact that -- as previously related here to you fine folks -- the cover to that edition of Mystery Walk had scared me so much that I had put off reading it until it was literally the only McCammon book left for me to read.
As we were standing there, I noticed that a lady at the front of the line was having McCammon sign a copy of the original Dark Harvest Swan Song hardback.  This was not the novel's first edition; it was a paperback original, but Dark Harvest published a limited-edition hardback a year or so later, and if you've got $400-800, you can buy one on the secondhand market.  I was immediately struck by a wave of envy, and I strongly considered joking with her about it when I saw her leaving a few minutes later.  "Hey," I was going to say, "I just wanted to mention that I absolutely will NOT follow you to the car and steal that copy of Swan Song from you, but it's kind of a temptation."
But of course, that would be a creepy and offputting thing to say, and might well earn me a maceing in the hashtag era of 2018.  So while I wanted to mention the book and ask her if I could check it out, I decided against it.
Eventually, I made it up to the front of the line and immediately apologized for bringing old books.  McCammon said that was no problem at all, and proceeded to sign for me the following books:
  • The Listener (already signed, but I asked him to personalize it, as well as the others I'm about to mention);
  • my original paperback edition of Blue World;
  • Shadow Show, an anthology honoring Ray Bradbury, in which McCammon's story "Children of the Bedtime Machine" is a standout;
  • and my limited edition of The Border.

We chatted for a bit about "Children of the Bedtime Machine," which I told him is, in my opinion, probably his best short story.  He was either surprised to hear that or he didn't agree with my assessment; probably the former, but the neurotic side of me fears McCammon might have judged me in that moment and found me lacking.  Which, to be fair, I kind of am.  Either way, he told me a quick story about how he came up with the title, which I really enjoyed.
Goes like this: in writing his rock-and-roll-centric novel The Five (which, to the shame of my clan, I have not yet read), he needed a name for a rock band.  So he went to a band-name generator, and what it gave him was "Children of the Bedtime Machine."  He was struck by this and the mental gears began a-turnin', and it eventually resulted in this story.  (He chose another name for the fictional rock band in The Five.)
I was intrigued by this and said so, and wondered whether he had already been approached about doing a story for Shadow Show.  He said he had, but had not come up with anything up to that point; so when the gears began turning, they steered his thoughts toward something in the vein of Bradbury.  It's a case of beneficial dovetailing, and not only is the story ("Children of the Bedtime Machine") beautifully Bradburian, but this story about the story is pretty dang Bradburian in its own right.
I love that.
I also talked to him for a bit about The Border, which I confessed that I had not read until just a few weeks prior to the Listener launch event, and had loved.  He was pleased to see a copy of the novel's limited edition, and showed it off to a few people, including the gentleman who runs the Alabama Booksmith.  I thanked him and said it'd been a pleasure to meet him (which it had), and got out of the way so somebody else could take my place.
As I was walking out, a lady at the back of the line said, "We've been talking about following you out to the parking lot and stealing that copy of The Border from you."  I looked up and saw several people grinning at me, so I stopped and chatted with them for a bit, and showed off my copy of The Border.  I even told them about seeing the lady earlier who had the copy of Swan Song that made me feel the same way.
Ain't that funny?
All in all, it was a fine old time.  I loved the bookstore, I enjoyed being around (and chatting with a few of) a bunch of fellow McCammon fans, and, of course, it was very cool to meet McCammon himself.  He was one of those guys who just seems friendly as all get-out, and happy to talk with his fans for a bit. 

I wouldn't be surprised if The Listener earns McCammon a few more of those fans.  This is a crackerjack of a novel.

Here's the setup: John "Pearly" Partlow, a traveling con man during the Great Depression, finds himself partnered with a buxom woman who has been running her own cons with another fellow.  She calls herself Ginger La France; it's not her real name, but what's that matter to anybody?  It certainly doesn't matter to Pearly.  The important thing is, Ginger's cooked up a scheme to make a couple hundred thousand dollars by kidnapping the children of a rich New Orleans businessman.

These two cretins -- and their truly despicable third wheel, a lug named (except not really ) Donnie -- coincidentally cross paths one day with Curtis Mayhew, who is employed as a baggage handler by the rail station.  Curtis, we will find out, is the titular "listener," which means that he is telepathic.

Here's the catch: he's not able to read just anybody's mind.  In fact, it's not entirely correct even to say he can read minds.  He can ... listen.  That is, he can "listen" to other people who are gifted in the same way he is; not a large number of people, but one here, one there.

McCammon depicts this in a manner different to any other depiction of telepathy I have ever encountered.  For Curtis and his fellow listeners, it works in a manner that you might describe as being a bit like tuning a radio and a bit like flinging a fishing line into a pond.  When two listeners connect, they "speak" to one another over something like a mental CB system.  Curtis "hears" his fellow listener, and his mind "speaks" their words to him in his own voice.  When Curtis hears this person, they sound ... like Curtis.  Except he can tell the difference between their thoughts and his own, and can register certain other things about them, such as a rough idea of their age, gender, race, etc.  Much of that aspect of "listening" seems to be intuition as much as anything else.

The narrative is split between Pearly's band of criminals and Curtis's story, and I won't say much about how the two sides of the story eventually intertwine.  You'll probably figure it out before I did; and it's not a plot twist or anything, so lest you think I'm being cagey on account of how it turns out Bruce Willis was dead the entire time or some such...?  Nah, it ain't that.

The book's front cover bills it as "a novel of suspense," and it is certainly that.  It's not a mystery, although it might well appeal to mystery fans; it's not a horror novel, although it damn well gets horrific at times; it's not particularly interested in the supernatural, apart from the telepathic aspects.  It's got similarities to a few other things I could name, including McCammon's own Mine (which also features a kidnapping) and Gone South (due to the swampland setting); and Stephen King's The Dead Zone came to mind for me in a big way during the first chapter, although even Greg Stillson might shudder thanks to something Pearly does within these opening pages.  He's truly villainous, but McCammon's perspective and empathy are strong enough that Pearly never ceases to be realistic; he never once tips over into the land of cartoonishness.

The Listener, I should take pains to clarify, is not derivative of any of those three novels I just mentioned.  It's its own thing, and that thing is vintage McCammon.  I've only read a few of his novels from this millennium, but of what I have read, this is my favorite.  I also liked The Border quite a bit (and might even say I loved it), but not only do I think The Listener is better, I think it's better by a fairly wide margin.

For one thing, the prose is tighter.  I carped a bit in my review of The Border that McCammon's editor seemed to have perhaps been asleep at times.  That was a Subterranean Press publication, whereas The Listener is a Cemetery Dance book; so it's entirely possible a different editor worked on this one.  Or perhaps McCammon himself simply knuckled down a bit harder.  I don't know; and anyways, isn't it kind of silly for a blogger to criticize a novelist for his prose?  I'm like a Little Leaguer watching the Braves and criticizing the pitcher; this is not lost on me.

To be clear, I felt it was only a mild issue with The Border, and not only is it not an issue at all in The Listener, this new novel is graced by some of McCammon's best-ever writing.  There's a great passage at one point discussing how one's soul is a bird whose color varies based on the personality of its owner.  I was also very fond of the novel's opening paragraphs:

The Devil can be a man or a woman.  The Devil can be a hard spring in the seat of a car, a gnat in the eye, or the whack of a wooden baton on the iron bars of a jail cell.  The Devil can be a flash of lightning, a swallow of bad whiskey, or a rotten apple slowly decaying a basketful of good ones.  The Devil can be a belt across the back of a child, or a cardboard box of cheap paperback Bibles swelling up in the hot rear seat of an eight-year-old faded green Oakland two-door sedan held together by rust and wires.
     Which, today, the Devil was.

If the novel has a problem, it's that a few plot threads are left dangling, one of which involves Ginger and gives McCammon the opportunity -- which he takes -- to mention Bryce Hospital.  (Bryce is a real place -- reputedly haunted -- located in my hometown, Tuscaloosa!  I'm a sucker for any mention of Tuscaloosa, as readers of my Mystery Walk review might remember.)  The thread that occasions the mention of Bryce is never quite resolved; it doesn't particularly need to be, but it might make some people expect something they never get.

There might also theoretically be some criticism of Curtis and/or the way McCammon addresses race via his plotline(s).  I thought Curtis made for a great hero, personally, but I've seen a customer review on Amazon from someone who felt otherwise; if that sort of thing is something that gives you pause, you might end up feeling differently than I did, which was very positive indeed.

I'd need to finish rereading some of his older work before speaking in anything resembling a definitive manner, but as of the moment, this is almost certainly one of my five favorite McCammon books.  At some point next year, he will have been publishing novels for forty years.  That's a fine run for anybody in any profession, and McCammon is showing no signs of losing steam.  If anything, The Listener suggests a talent that is in its prime, which is a good thing for a blogger to be able to say about one of his favorite authors.

It's cool to have been able to meet McCammon at all, and it was especially cool to have met him on the day this very fine piece of fiction was released into the world.

I know at least one of this blog's readers who is reading the novel.  Hopefully a few others will pick it up and enjoy it, too.  If you do, please let me know what you think.

See you next time, when the plan is to tackle Gerald's Game.


  1. I only read through the bookstore portion, as I am planning on reading this one sooner or later. (Okay, tho, I kinda skimmed it - confirms what I thought when I first heard about it: sounds interesting and I want to read it)

    Sounds like a good time! And a great place for sure.

  2. Ah, courtesy at a book signing. You mean you didn't stake out in front of the bathroom to get a book signed so you could resell it on ebay? Whaaaaa? You're a crazy person! haha
    Great post on the signing very funny. Those kind of things are weird and awkward, but I'm guessing everyone feels that way. I like hearing origin stories of stories and songs. Mccammon definitely seems like a good dude. There's an interview where someone basically calls a plagiarist (in a really nice way) and it totally rolled off his back. I can't find this interview but it was a professional pbs-like one about writing in general.
    I will probably listen to The Listener at some point, there are only a handful of audio cds of his works and I can only listen to the digital ones at certain times of the year.

    1. I'd have wanted it this way regardless, but I made sure to ask that the books be personalized just so as to limit the odds of McCammon thinking I had any intention of reselling them to signed-book hounds.

      Speaking of that interview you refer to...

      It's worth seeing for McCammon; it's worth NOT seeing for the host, who is the very model of a pompous-ass English-professor type.

      You've intrigued me: why can you only listen to digital-only audiobooks at certain times of the year?

    2. Yes that interview!
      I was joking about the autograph bathroom thing, I think some people go lil overboard to get a signed thing.
      I am busier at work during certain times than others. When I'm busiest I listen to music, when I am less so, audio books.

    3. Ah, okay, I see; that makes sense.

      Some people do indeed go overboard for autographs, I'm sure. It's very distasteful to me, especially when the intent is to make a profit off of it.

  3. Based on the synopsis, the whole story sounds like it should be scored by Tom Waits, or someone like that.

    Sounds like a much older form of entertainment, as opposed to the blockbuster. I even wonder if Scorsese would get a kick out of it.

    I'll have to be on the lookout for a copy.


    1. I don't know much about Waits. I'd pick Nick Cave to do the score, I think. And obviously, you could do worse than Scorsese as director.

  4. I have to laugh at your story of the lady with the Dark Harvest edition of Swan Song. 7-8 years ago I belonged to a horror reading group and I suggested Swan Song as the next read. When we all showed up for the discussion of Swan Song one of the women had an autographed copy of the DH Swan Song that she bought for $3.25 at an estate sale. I told her I wasn't going to follow her to her car and steal it, but that I had considered it. Yeah, we'd both been in the group for a couple of years and so she knew I was kidding...I think.

    1. Between this comment and my post, I think a picture has been painted of Robert McCammon fans as resolutely determined NOT to do violence upon others for the sake of fine books, but perpetually low-key considering it.

      $3.25 for a copy of that book...and signed! Ah-hahaahahahaah, that's the sound of me kind of weeping a little bit to myself for not having that kind of luck.

  5. I just finished "The Listener" yesterday, and I really loved it. I haven't read anything by McCammon since "Swan Song" and "Boy's Life" were first published, but I bought this one on a day Cemetery Dance was offering a 50% discount for one day only, because I've been wanting to start reading this author again.

    The opening reminded me of Greg Stillson a bit too, but once Pearly teamed up with Ginger, I expected the story to be perhaps a road trip novel about really evil con games (I'd forgotten CD's plot summary and skipped reading the dust jacket summary to avoid spoilers).

    I was mildly disappointed at first that it wasn't a road trip, but before long I began to enjoy the story through to the end. It's very obvious that this is a very talented author that knows how to tell a creepy story, so I'm a bit angry that somehow I've missed reading any of his novels for around 30 years. I think McCammon really brought each of the main characters to life and wrote the story out without filler or long side stories, though I wanted to know more about some parts of Ginger's past.

    Sounds like the bookstore signing is something you'll always remember, cool. I've never been to one of these, though I wanted to go to a Stephen King signing at a store not too far from me a few years ago for one of the Bill Hodges books. I decided to not try to face the crowds since a signed book wasn't even guaranteed.

    Now I need to go try to find some McCammon books to buy.

    Rich K.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

      If I were recommending McCammon books to you, I'd say that "Blue World," "Stinger," and "The Wolf's Hour" would be good ones to consider. Among more recent novels, I can vouch for "The Border."

      The whole book-signing thing WAS a lot of fun. I always feel a little conflicted about things like that. I used to go to sci-fi conventions, and going to signings there always felt like the celebrities had been turned into zoo animals and us fans were strolling along through the exhibits, occasionally stopping in the hopes of seeing one of the monkeys jump around for a minute or two. I never liked the way that felt. It didn't feel that way to me at the McCammon signing, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it didn't feel that way to him. I hope not!

    2. I myself have been meaning to work my way through the McCammon books I haven't read ever since I finally read the "Wolf's Hour" companion collection "The Hunter From the Woods" last fall. But I've been absolutely buried in work for the past few months, so haven't had the time for any reading at all.

      Now that things are slowing back down, and with these recent posts as catalyst, I think I'll finally do that. I've only ever read "Swan Song," "Blue World," and the two "Wolf's Hour" books, so I'm going to start with "Boy's Life" (because that seems to be consistently listed as one of his best) and "The Border" (the premise is quite intriguing). Should be a fun project for the spring and summer.

      Oh, and I have to fit Joe Hill's "Strange Weather" in there too. Got that for Christmas and haven't had time for it...

    3. I hope you enjoy it when you find the time.

      I'm really looking forward to both finishing my reread of McCammon's older books (especially "Boy's Life," "Swan Song," and "The Wolf's Hour," oh, and "Blue World," too) AND reading the newer ones I've still not read. Part of me is glad I've still not read some of them; it means that when and if I feel the urge to sit down and plow through half a dozen of his books that are new to me, I can still do so.

      I've not read "The Hunter from the Woods" yet. How is it?

    4. "The Hunter from the Woods" was quite good. I think any fan of "The Wolf's Hour" will be quite pleased with that book. I think the approach of bringing Michael Gallatin back via a collection of shorter stories was a great call! Every story is very distinct from the others in both tone and setting (and, apart from the WWII backdrop, no story copies from "The Wolf's Hour"). To me it shows McCammon stretching himself and really pushing to deliver something special to fans of the original, rather than simply repeating the same formula, which is something I respect and admire. It also demonstrates McCammon's range in being able to wring suspense from many different setups and situations.

      I really, really liked the first story, which is a prequel going back to Gallatin's childhood. If I could only give someone one single Michael Gallatin story to read, it would almost certainly be that one, even over "The Wolf's Hour."

    5. I look forward to reading it. I'm not sure when that will be (gotta reread "The Wolf's Hour" -- about which I remember virtually nothing except the rosy mental glow I associate with loving something -- first), but I'm hoping relatively soon.


  6. I didn't really care much for The Listener, maybe the subject matter or lack of supernatural elements is the reason. I think the idea of kidnapping stories are flawed to me at least because there are only a few outcomes. Everyone dies or some are saved and some die or just the bad guys die or something like that. It's all focused on one particular thing and that's it. Raising Arizona is an excellent kidnapping story because the kidnapping is secondary to the characters. Things are setup by the kidnapping but things progress from there. I hope I'm making sense. It's a very "in a small room, find our way out" story line.
    It was a fine story but didn't really hold my attention.
    Oh, also I thought there was gonna be an explanation for that awful cover but there never was. Maybe I missed something.

    I just listened to Usher's Passing and Stinger before this and they were pretty good books. Usher's Passing is a weird one.

    I going to listen to Blaze next to see if my kidnapping theory holds water. I don't remember anything about that book except that it was depressing.


    1. Yeah, I don't know what the deal is with the cover. Perplexingly awful.