I read much of Robert R. McCammon’s work when I was younger, but somehow I managed to read only his ‘lesser’ works, such as Stinger (1988), Wolf’s Hour (1989), and The Night Boat (1980), and completely missed the books widely considered to be his masterpieces, namely Swan Song (1987) and Boy’s Life (1991). It’s possible, in the case of Boy’s Life, that it was published after I had ended my initial interest in horror fiction, but I suspect that I simply wasn’t mature enough to bother with a story about a boy growing up in a small Alabama town in 1960.
I recently decided to take another look at McCammon, and started with Boy’s Life. I have to say: wow. Boy’s Life is good, and not just ‘horror novel good’ — it’s ‘literary novel good’.
McCammon is not a prolific author: he has published little over a dozen novels since his first in 1978, and took a long hiatus between 1992 and 2002, evidently due to depression and dissatisfaction with the publishing industry (his full biography can be read here). He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and Boy’s Life clearly draws upon his own impressions of the South in that era.
The story is narrated by author Cory Mackenson, who recollects his own time growing up in the fictional town of Zephyr, Alabama in 1964. Zephyr is a small town, haunted by the ghosts of history, some figurative, others very real. Cory is an ordinary ten-year old boy, the son of a milkman, whose life is filled only with the usual joys and pitfalls of a boy until one early morning when he and his father see a car plunge into Saxon’s Lake. When his father attempts to rescue the seemingly unconscious driver, he finds instead that the man has been brutally murdered and handcuffed to the steering wheel. The car plunges to the bottom of the incredibly deep lake — a former quarry — never to be seen again. Cory’s father is haunted by this glimpse at evil in the otherwise seemingly idyllic town, and begins to suffer nightmares of the experience that threaten his very life.
This event triggers a collection of events for Cory, some the regular tribulations of a ten-year old boy, others related to the strangeness of Zephyr itself. As he lives his life, and tries to help his father, Cory will encounter violent moonshiners, a mysterious and ancient mystic, a creature which may very well be a dinosaur, a ghostly hot rod crusing the highways, a monster lurking in the river known only as Old Moses — and the murderer of the man at the bottom of Saxon’s Lake.
The book is divided into quasi-independent chapters, each of which tells a small part of Cory’s story. Remarkably, each of these chapters could very well be a short story in and of itself. Each of these stories is closely connected to every other, and together they are weaved into a wonderful tapestry depicting life in 1960s Alabama, including the real-world problems that affected it at the time: racial tension, the loss of traditional businesses. The tapestry is also weaved in the form of a murder mystery, as Cory is led closer and closer to the secret of the murder at Saxon’s Lake.
For a reader like me, Boy’s Life is the best of two worlds: it manages to provide social commentary and tell a very mature coming-of-age story, but at the same time it throws in a healthy dose of the weirdness I love. The weirdness and horror of the tale is not excessive: the story should be accessible to anyone who has read the classics of literature. If you can stomach the horrors of The Grapes of Wrath, you can read Boy’s Life. I highly recommend it.
This book, with its chapters in the form of a collection of independent stories, begs to be made into a mini-series. After I finished the book, I kept imagining various scenes in it and how they would play out in a visual medium. I guess that’s the sign of a good piece of literature: it stays with you.