Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mystery Walk

Back in the 80s, at the onset of the horror boom, publishers were looking for the next Stephen King, a horror writer who could grab the public’s imagination (and deliver the sales) as King had. No one really succeeded in matching the King, but the author who came the closest was Robert R. McCammon. I always read horror novels in October to ramp up for Halloween, and this year, decided to include a couple of “sure things”, classic novels I had read before and liked. One of the choices this year was McCammon’s Mystery Walk, which I first read on its original paperback publication, but haven’t re-visited since.

There are a couple of reasons that I am predisposed to like this book, other than McCammon being one of my favorite authors. First of all, I was living in Birmingham, where McCammon also lives, during the time he wrote his best work. (I met him on several occasions at signings and the like, and he was always gracious.) The other is that the book is set in Fayette, Alabama, which happens to be my hometown. To my knowledge, this is the only work of fiction using Fayette as a location.

Billy Creekmore, a half-Choctaw boy living in Fayette County, received an unusual inheritance from his mother: The ability to see the restless dead. Even more important, he has the ability to help the spirits leave their pain behind and pass on to the next world. This talent has made the Creekmores needed in their rural area, but has also made them shunned and feared. It has also given them a fierce opponent, a demonic Shape Shifter which uses the tormented dead for its own evil purposes, and therefore doesn’t want to let them go.

The Creekmores also have some human enemies. A prominent evangelist, J. J. Falconer, hails from Fayette, and has a son, Wayne, the same age as Billy, who has the power to heal. The Falconers view the Creekmores as competition, and want to put a stop to them.

Billy’s journey through life – his “mystery walk” – takes him from Fayette to a traveling carnival, to Chicago, and back home. As he grows into a man, he learns to accept and deal with his power, and to see his enemies for what they are. The road leads to an ultimate confrontation, both with his ancient spiritual enemy, and the more earthly Falconers.

Objectively, Mystery Walk is not McCammon’s strongest book. It reads somewhat like a trial run for his masterpiece, Boy’s Life, sharing that book’s time period and rural Alabama setting. I felt the impact of the book was somewhat diluted when Billy hits the road, as he never seemed as real a character in Chicago as he did in Fayette, and wish the book’s focus had remained there. Mccammon does use the book to make some social commentary about life in the South back then, mostly as regards to racism and religion, but I wish he'd done a little more.

But second-tier McCammon is still head and shoulders above most writers’ best work, and this is a very good novel. I wouldn’t recommend it as the starting point for someone new to McCammon’s work, but I would advise readers not to miss it.

A couple of nit-picky notes, of interest to no one else: I don’t know if McCammon did much research on Fayette when he wrote the book (there was no real need) but he got a detail or two wrong. First of all, the description of Fayette County High (my alma mater) is all wrong. Secondly, reference is made to the “Fayette County High Bulldogs”. At the time of the novel, we were known as the “Fighting Tigers” (I think they’ve dropped the “Fighting” part of the name now, since it is considered wrong these days to fight for anything). Again, these are things anyone who wasn’t from Fayette wouldn’t care about, but I guess I have to be true to my school.

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