Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Review of "Baal" [by Robert McCammon]

When I discovered Stephen King in the summer of 1990, I quickly became obsessed by the man's work.  I eagerly bought and read all of his books I could get my hands on.  When I'd done so, I then re-read them all, and next began looking around for something similar.  I have very fond memories of spending a lot of time in a used bookstore called The Book Rack, which is where I got most of my King books.  So when it came time to try to find similar books, The Book Rack was my first stop.  Looking around those shelves, I found Peter Straub (whose work already interested me, thanks to The Talisman), and Dean Koontz, and Clive Barker, amongst others.

However, of all the other writers to whom I turned as methadone in the lack of new heroin from Stephen King himself, I enjoyed Robert R. McCammon the most.

Some of this had to do with the fact that (as I learned) he was an Alabama native who had gone to school at the University of Alabama, in my hometown of Tuscaloosa.  That was only part of it, though; I also felt that McCammon was the most imaginative of the authors I adopted while looking to supplement my King fixation.

I bought and read all of McCammon's books, from the epic Swan Song to the only slightly less epic The Wolf's Hour to the sublime Boy's Life.  McCammon published a dozen novels (plus Blue World, a collection of short stories) between 1978 and 1992; after 1992's Gone South he stopped publishing for a full decade.  1992 is also the year I graduated from high school and began college, and the onrushing new experiences and time constraints put my horror-fiction fandom on hold, at least in the larger sense.

My devotion to King never wavered in all that time, but I stopped reading Straub and Barker and Koontz because other interests crowded them out; eventually, to save on space, I got rid of almost all of those books.
I kept my entire McCammon collection, though.  In and of itself, that is meaningful; I have gone many phases of book collecting, and have often found it necessary to undertake great purges, divesting myself of all of my Star Trek novels, or all of my Star Wars novels, or all of my (mostly never-read) classics.  A serious Heinlein phase came and went, and so forth.
But I never got rid of a single one of my Robert McCammon books.  Not one of 'em.  They got packed away in boxes, and never made it onto shelves, and never got re-read . . . but they survived each move, even when other collections did not; I never gave even the slightest thought to dumping my McCammon.  It was almost as if I knew I'd be returning to them someday.

And here someday is.

Since I'm already revisiting the works of Peter Straub, I thought it might be acceptable to revisit some of those other authors whose work I was led to by King.  Foremost among them will be McCammon.  Simply put, I feel like rereading his books, and since my discovery of his work is inextricably linked -- in my mind, if nowhere else -- with my discovery of Stephen King, it seems like fair game for this blog.

Let's get started with a look at McCammon's debut novel, 1978's Baal.

Baal is a mixed bag of a novel, and it's one of several  -- his first four (Baal, Bethany's Sin, The Night Boat, and They Thirst) -- that McCammon feels to be a poor representation of his works; they strike him now as being the work of a writer who was still learning to write and in the case of Baal, at least, that's hard to argue with.    
Baal is a sloppy novel, one that -- arguably -- doesn't introduce its main character until nearly a third of the way into the narrative.  (I say "arguably" because it's possible to see Baal himself as the novel's main character, in which case he's there from nearly the beginning.)  The prose is very weak in places, and the novel suffers from a seeming reluctance on McCammon's part for one particular character (who has a lot of knowledge about Baal) to explain to certain other characters what is going on.  On the one hand, this is okay; we're in possession of most of that knowledge ourselves, making it unnecessary for it to be repeated.  But when a knowledgeable character tells an unknowledgeable character things that we already know, it keeps everyone -- reader and protagonists alike -- on equal footing.  This is valuable from a narrative standpoint.  Also in the demerits column: a plotline set in the Middle East becomes extremely interesting at a certain point, and then the narrative shifts to a completely different locale and to a completely different set of concerns; transition from one thing to the next is somewhat unsatisfying.

Despite all of those flaws, though, this is an imaginative and involving novel.  One of its sins is that it simply isn't long enough; this feels like it wants to be a true epic of the type McCammon later crafted in Swan Song, but is instead merely the standard 350 or so pages.  That's a demerit, too, but one that is wrapped inside a plus: if a novel feels short, that means the story is involving, because why else would I want to read more of it?

The setup: a young woman in the sixties is raped by a stranger in an alley, and unlike the vast majority of rapists, this one's flesh burns hand prints into his victim's skin.  Nine months or so later, out pops a baby, which is, of course, a demon.  Both parents die, and the baby ends up in a series of orphanages; when he's old enough to talk he begins calling himself Baal, and creeps everyone out.  If this reminds you at all of The Omen, it's probably no accident; but McCammon delivers a few scenes that are as good as anything in that semi-classic Richard Donner movie, and the stories diverge radically after the basic demon-baby plotline.

As soon as possible, Baal escapes from the orphanage into the world, taking similarly orphaned disciples with him, and when we next encounter him, a number of years have passed; he's all grown up, camped out in Kuwait, and spawning a truly frightening cult.  Coming out as it did during the Carter administration, the Middle East sections must have been effective at the time, and they are still rather effective over thirty years later.

Eventually, an elderly theology professor -- ostensibly the novel's protagonist -- finds out something of the nature of this "man," and becomes allied with Michael, a mysterious man who is hunting Baal.  The rest of the novel plays out as the forces lined against Baal try to end the threat he poses.  If I told you this all ends up, in quasi-Frankensteinian fashion, near the North Pole, would you believe me?

All in all, this is a novel that I probably ought to be harsher toward.  And yet, I like it.  The scenes in Kuwait are very effective, as are the scenes in Greenland and further north; these things ought not to mix at all, and arguably don't; but their individual powers are significant enough that I give this novel kudos where kudos are perhaps not entirely deserved.  Obviously, McCammon himself has no great love for the novel.  I think it still works, though; I'd forgotten almost everything about it in the two decades since I first read it, but as I reread the book, I'd get to certain sections and remember them in advance.  "Oh," I'd think, "this the part where _____," or "here's when _____ bites the dust."

It's an amateurish novel in some respects, but a powerful one, and one that was obviously written with great passion, and glimmers of genuine talent.

If you've never read McCammon's work, this is perhaps not the best place to start, but it's well worth circling back to once you've digested some of his more mature works.


  1. McCammon is the one writer who's style, I find, are most closest to King's own. This has been something of a detriment to the extent that many have called him the "Poor Man's Stephen King", a criticism both unfair and unearned.

    An early novel like Baal showcases all the handicaps of the classic "First Novel Blues". I think McCammon in the early years was on a kind of creative writing learning curve, and that he taught himself how to write better as he went along.

    One of the ways he might have done this was through emulation, hence a book like Swan Song.

    I remember my first McCammon novel was Boy's Life and remember finding no stylistic or narrative problems. The next book of his I picked up was Scorpion and it's also good, I just remember thinking some passages were a little overwrought and found myself thinking, don't be timid, turn up the ups, damn it!.

    If McCammon won't allow his early work to be reprinted, then my theory that he was learning as he went explains a lot of the why.

    I think it's a testament to the fact that he has actual talent that he improved with age. I see the novel Scorpion as the kind of halfway point in his career, he's still under some of the handicaps that characterized novels like Baal, yet there's less sign of them and more narrative confidence. You live, you learn.


    1. Chris, my understanding is that McCammon did indeed remove those early novels from print because he felt that, in writing them, he had learned to write in public.

      I sympathize. However, I still think "Baal," for all its problems, is an entertaining novel, and worth reading for horror fans.

      McCammon definitely does not deserve that "poor man's Stephen King" albatross hanging around his neck. He's WAY better than that, and I think almost anyone who actually reads his work knows it, like we do.

      In fact, I wrestled with not posting this review, simply because I didn't want to be a part of contributing to that long outdated popular belief. Ultimately, though, I decided to just go ahead and do it. I've occasionally stepped outside the realm of works by (or based on) King and written about things that are either thematically similar ... or which, in this case, simply get filed on a different shelf of the same bookcase in my mental organization system.

      What I will NOT do is make the mistake of reviewing McCammon's work as a King fan. I'll review it as a McCammon fan, which I used to be and am aiming to become again. Sure, when I get to "Swan Song" it might be difficult to avoid mentioning "The Stand." However, my memory of "Swan Song" is that it is not particularly less good than "The Stand," and if that memory holds up, then there'll be no need to worry about any supposed similarities.

      After all, I couldn't possibly care less that "Under the Dome" has similarities to "The Simpsons Movie," or that "The Green Mile" has similarities to "Life on Death Row" (an episode of "Amazing Stories").

      The way I see it, even if McCammon had intentionally sat down and said "Hmm, how can I rip off 'The Stand'?", it wouldn't matter to me as long as the result was good. Couldn't care less.

      As always, Chris, thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks for posting this, Bryant. I love Robert McCammon's work!

    In fact, when asked what my favorite novel is – as a King aficionado, I obviously mention either The Stand, or The Shining, or IT – I all too often I end up throwing a title in that group that most have never heard of …

    And that would be 'Boy's Life' by Robert McCammon. Simply one of the most emotional, interesting, and well-constructed novels I have ever read. Each chapter is like a brilliant short story unto itself. While there is one long narrative regarding a recent murder, it is the individual vignettes along the way that make this book remarkable.

    From Cory's bizarrely charming encounters with The Lady and crazy (or is he?) old Vernon, to Rev. Blesset's disastrous attempts to expose rock-n-roll as evil to his congregation by using a spider monkey named Lucifer (who goes crazy and wreaks havoc on the whole town), to the heart-wrenching story of Cory's dog Rebel – his tragic death, his miraculous resurrection from a little boy's prayers, to his final demise. This is powerful fiction.

    I have read other McCammon books like Stinger, Gone South, and Swan Song (which I like a lot, but which is NOT as good as the Stand – my God, but that post-apocalyptic landscape is depressing), yet none come close to the brilliance of Boy's Life. I'm glad you mentioned it in this review of Baal (which I haven't read). I'd forgotten that you, as an Alabama native, would have already discovered it

    Not only is Boy's Life the most brilliant coming of age story since King's The Body (Stand By Me), it should be a text book example of how to balance heart and horror, high art and low art, eloquent literature and pulp fiction. One glance at the comments on the Boy's Life Amazon page tells me I am not alone in my consideration of this book as one of my all-time favorites. It is THAT good. I aspire to to the quality of this novel in my own fiction.

    I hope you review it soon.

    1. Andy, I am definitely looking forward to rereading "Boy's Life." I remember loving that one. I'm going to work my way through them chronologically, so it's going to be a while before I get to it -- especially since I'm simultaneously doing the same thing with Peter Straub! And eventually I'm going to need to read something else by, you know, STEPHEN KING again ;)

    2. Maybe you'll eventually get around to reading MINE somewhere in there. :)

      (I don't mean MINE by Robert McCammon. I mean MY novel, BROODING. LOL.)

    3. I has officially now put it on my list.

    4. Thank you. I shall look forward to that.

      PS – Regarding McCammon again: I never read any of his 'Speaks the Nightbird' books but, according to the Amazon reviews, they certainly do have their rabid fans. Perhaps I will read them someday. I DID read his latest, 'The Five' – about a rock group being stalked by a maniac – which was actually quite good. Nice to have him back writing modern day suspense.

      PPS – Regarding Dean Koontz (whose books you gave away): While he is (was?) my second favorite writer (behind Uncle Stevie, of course), over the last 10 years or so, he has really disappointed me. Like he's doing a bad impersonation of himself. But still, novels like Watchers, Lightning, Strangers, Intensity (to name only a few), these are, to this day, some of my favorites. Ever read any of them?

      PPPS – Regarding MY book (yet again): I am almost done with what has been a pretty major polish – damn near a rewrite – and will have that version loaded up and ready to go by the end of this month. Soon after that, it will be available on Kindle. You know … in case you wanted to wait.

  3. I'm recent newcomer to Koontz, since he's been brought up, and I don't about anyone else, yet he seems too in with purple prose.

    He takes a good long while to get to the point of a scene which slows down a lot of the action (I admit here to not having yet read Intensity) and even King pointed out he over-moralizes a lot in his fiction, letting the message dictate the events of his stories.

    What's worse for me about that is I tend to a agree with him a lot, although also seem to be, well, less of a wet blanket about it...Sorry.

    I suppose I'll have to go back to Koontz and try again, maybe with his novelization of Tobe Hooper's Funhouse.


    1. I agree with all of your criticisms of Dean Koontz – especially of late. But he didn't used to be that way.

      If you are a newcomer to him, a great place to start is those novels I mentioned, Watchers, Lightning, and Strangers, all from the late 1980s.

      Intensity, on the other hand, from 1995, could be THE MOST SUSPENSEFUL NOVEL I have ever read. It could (and should) be a text book on how to keep your audience on the edge of their seat. Highly recommended.

    2. I read Watchers in high school and loved it; I need to revisit some Koontz at some point, too. I definitely also read Lightning and Strangers, and I have good memories of them as well.

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