While the post-apocalyptic genre has been around for many generations, I've only read a handful of them -after all not many writers bring something new to add to the table. Still, since nuclear war, World War III, was always the catalyst for the story, I usually passed them over. Stephen King's The Stand, which I read around 1980, was the first of this genre (I think) to end world not with a bang, but with a whisper -a super flu (called Captain Trips). Since the 1978 release of King's book, a lot of authors have used some sort of mutated organism to end the world.
Back in 1987, when Robert McCammon released Swan Song, I was not put off by it's mass market length (956 pages), but by the fact that for me, King's The Stand was the best book ever written about the end of the world. Also, since I had discovered King, he became the only author I really wanted to read in the horror fiction genre. Yes, I read John Saul, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and few others, but they all seemed to pale next King (especially Koontz, someone I always deemed as conservative Americans safe horror writer; a guy who produced paint-by-numbers fiction designed not to be anything distasteful or liberal). And this tendency to read one author in one genre never applied to science fiction or fantasy that I read, as I bounced all over the place in my early years of reading (though I think everyone has tendency to stick to their favorite author). Yet, despite my misgivings, I do remember owing a copy of Swan Song. But I never read it.
Now nearly 28 years since its first release, I discovered a copy (first printing as well) of McCammon's epic novel at a Goodwill store. Having given away some books due to moving around (ones that I felt I would never get too), I thought maybe this time was the universe telling me it was finally time to read this book.
On the edge of a barren Kansas landscape, an ex-wrestler called Black Frankenstein hears the cry..."Protect the Child!"---In the wasteland of New York City, a bag lady clutches a strange glass ring and feels magic coursing through her---Within an Idaho mountain, a survivalist compound lies in ruins, and a young boy learns how to kill. In a wasteland born of nuclear rage, in a world of mutant animals and marauding armies, the last people on earth are now the first. There is Sister, who discovers the strange and transformative glass artifact in the destroyed Manhattan streets; Joshua Hutchins, the wrestler who takes refuge from the nuclear fallout at a Nebraska gas station; and Swan, a young girl possessing special powers, who travels alongside Josh to a Missouri town where healing and recovery can begin with Swan's gifts. While the destines of those who survived the unsurvivable are inedibly bound to meet, there is also another entity, an ancient evil that now roams the blasted nightmare country, an evil as old as time. He is the Man with the Scarlet Eye, the Man of Many Faces, and he'll gather under his power the forces of human greed and madness that always seem to survive. For he seeks to destroy the one thing that he knows can stop him, stop his party as he says, a young girl called Swan.
A lot of Swan Song resembles King's The Stand, but I don't think that is bad. My biggest issue with the book comes in the form of James Macklin (though thanks to Parks & Recreation, I kept think of Chris Pratt's character of Andy Dwyer and his fake FBI agent Burt Macklin) and Roland Croninger, two of the villains of the book who the reader knows from their first introductions that they're psychotic and evil sociopaths. As noted, the book is 950 plus pages long, and you would think that you might give the reader a chance to like these guys before turing them into horrible people. Instead, we see their evilness from the get go. Also, we don't get much information of entity that is Friend (as he calls himself towards the end, but went under several names before). We can assume that he's some sort of demon, but who and how he came into existence is never fully explained.
Is McCammon, as he has said, "'the poor man's Stephen King,' and that I was 'walking on King and Straub's territory,' that I was a rip-off artist and a hack with no style of my own?" I'm not sure, as I thought the book was still well written. The thing is, I understand the publishing industry (like most media) is based on flavor of the month. And what is hugely successful must have an imitation. Stephen King can be credited with bringing the horror genre out of the dark Gothic corner it painted itself into by setting his tales in modern times with easily accessible and (importantly) believable characters, but I always knew that other publishers were going to capitalize on that. I think McCammon does a fine job here, even if he borrows heavily from King.
Will I read more of his work? I'm sure I'll try -Boy's Life has always interested me- but at this stage in my life, I will never say never. All options are open.