Speaks the Nightbird by Robert R. McCammon

Which witch will burn, which?

By Chuck Wendig
May 06, 2003

I wasn’t yet a teenager when my sister did a terrible thing to me. I was twelve, still reading Lloyd Alexander and C.S. Lewis, and then suddenly, my sister pressed into my palm a paperback book called Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon. Damn thing was over 950 pages long (and could’ve been used to bludgeon an attacking Rottweiler). On the cover was some mean-looking scarlet-faced fiend; not the kind of face I’d seen before, and one that terrified the pee-juice right outta me. Still, I remained undaunted, and chewed through the book like a beaver through pine. Two weeks later, I was both scared out of my mind and enraptured to the core by this book. I promptly found as many of the author’s other books as I could get my greasy fingers on, and sucked them down like marrow from bones.

“Why,” you may ask, “was that such a terrible thing?” Oh, it sounds like a nice idea on the surface. But it did bad voodoo to this boy’s brain. Because it made me want to be a writer. I immediately dropped my dreams of becoming a lucrative cartoonist (ahem) and decided instead to adopt the lifestyle of guzzling caffeine and eating cold beans out of tin cans. McCammon enchanted me with his blue-collar prose, powerful metaphors, and “scare-the-tits-off-a-hooker” tactics, and I wanted to emulate the man. Worse still, without that impetus driving me ever-forward, I wouldn’t be here, ranting to you poor bastards. Now do you see what a terrible thing she did?

Regardless, back to McCammon. He wrote all these great books, and then in 1993, he slipped from sight like an oily piglet through farmer arms. Gone. Poof. The occasional missive from his side of the world (Alabama) would emerge that he was trying to move away from the horror genre (something his final few books more or less accomplished), and that his publishers were balking, leaving him both frustrated and depressed. I don’t know what they did to him, maybe they held him down and gave him Indian Rug Burn or forced him to watch repeated viewings of Kim Basinger’s Bless the Child, but whatever the case, he rejected the publishing thing wholesale, and thus rejected writing. No more books were slated for publication, despite the sporadic whisperings that he had two books – historical novels, if the grapevine had it right – ready for the editor’s red pen.

Now, ten years later, one of those books surfaced. That book is Speaks the Nightbird, a historical mystery piece published by River City Publishing (currently out in hardcover for $27.95, but hitting a 2-paperback version in the fall through Pocket Books).

The book is nearly as weighty as Swan Song, and could probably be used as a boat anchor in a pinch. The good news is, despite the back problems you’ll have from reading the book, none of that cumbersome burden translates over into the actual writing. The book details the harrowing trial of an accused witch in the colonial Carolina village of Fount Royal. An elder magistrate and his young clerk are sent to investigate, and while the town (and to a degree, the magistrate) is eager to put this case to bed and hang the accursed witch, the clerk – Matthew Corbett – isn’t so quick to judge. In fact, the young Mr. Corbett soon decides that the “witch” is nothing of the kind, and should be spared the flame of the punishing pyre. Mystery ensues as Corbett races against time to uncover (from a cast of extraordinarily colorful characters) the truth about the supposed sorceress. Is Corbett right? Or is he making a grievous error? Or does the grim reality lie somewhere in-between?

The writing is strong and confident, and moves with a deftness that never allows for a reader’s ennui to settle in. The characters are picture-perfect and rife with gray complexity, never predictable. Do you like mystery? Romance? Humor? And yes, even horror? Then nab this book. Hunt it down, spear it, and take it to bed with you. I can’t say it enough — this book is excellent. It reveals a long-gone author at the top of his form, weaving together a twisty, turny historical thriller right before our wide-moon eyes and slack-dropped jaws. McCammon once again proves his mettle.

Aye, but here’s the rub. Despite the critical success of the book (and the mere fact that it got published at all), the erstwhile McCammon has declared that he is still retired. No more books. No more words. Nada, zip, zero. It’s an awful shame that someone with such extraordinary talent (even his older horror books are elevated far above the norm, even above that scion of the industry, Stephen King) has gotten a case of the literary cold feet and won’t come out to play. It disappoints the king-hell out of me, as this guy was practically my hero ten years ago, and still is, to a point. It feels a little selfish and a little cowardly that he’s bowed out of the arena, and I’d like to sit here and point a mean, waggling finger at him… but by the same token, hey, it’s his life. The biggest indignity of it all, though, is that we’re the ones who will miss out, we’re the ones with tear-soaked pillows. Alas. Despite this, go. Go and read Speaks the Nightbird. There will be, I promise, not a single iota of disappointment to be found.