Honk's Review of McCammon's BAAL

I enjoyed Bryant Burnette's post at Ramblings of a Honk Mahfah of Robert McCammon's book Baal.  The novel was McCammon's first.  My favorite McCammon book is -- just lip sink with me -- Swan Song.  McCammon's book Boy's Life and Usher's Passing are both interesting.

Check out Bryant's blog, Ramblings Of A Honk Mahfah.

A Brief Review: "Baal" [by Robert R. McCammon]

by Bryant Burnette 

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 to Dean Koontz, and to Clive Barker, amongst others.

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

Some of this, undoubtedly, 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 then that McCammon was simply the most imaginative of the authors I adopted while looking to supplement my King fixation.

I bought all of McCammon's books, and read all of them, from the epic Swan Song to the only slightly less epic The Wolf's Hour to the superb Boy's Life. McCammon published a dozen novels plus a collection of short stories between 1978 and 1992, but after Gone South -- published in '92, the year I graduated from high school and began attending the same college McCammon attended -- he stopped publishing for a full decade.

During that decade, I sorta just mentally lost track of his works. My devotion to King never wavered in all that time, but I stopped reading Straub and Barker simply because other interests crowded them out; as for Koontz and some of the others, I lost all interest and got rid of my collections of their books.

I kept all of my McCammon books, though, and in and of itself, that is meaningful; I went through a lot of phases in terms of what books I collected, and at various points between then and now I have 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 where other books 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. So you will see reviews of Clive Barker pop up here, and reviews of the novels of Tabitha King (which I've always wanted to read but never have) ... and reviews of McCammon's work as well. The main reason is simply because I feel like rereading them, 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 the author no longer allows to be reprinted. He apparently feels that they are a poor representation of his works, 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 near 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, since we're in possession of most of that knowledge ourselves, making it unnecessary for it to be repeated; on the other hand, when a knowledgeable character tells an unknowledgeable character things that we already know, it keeps everyone -- reader and protagonists alike -- on equal footing, which 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 the narrative shifts to a completely different locale and to a completely different set of concerns when that happens, and the transition from one thing to the next is, to say the least, unsatisfying.

For 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 story ends up going in very different directions.

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 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? Well, it does, so you should.

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 oppressive and effective, as are the scenes in Greenland and further north; these things ought not to mix at all, and kinda don't, and yet 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. I'm looking forward to re-reading my way through the rest of McCammon's work, and then catching up with his recent work (which I have not read).

    Thanks for the kind words, by the way!

  2. Sounds great, looking forward to more where this came from.


  3. I just finished reading "Boy's Life" by McCammon and absolutely loved it. It's one powerful novel. The interesting thing is that, in McCammon's forward, he writes that his publishers wanted to make the story just a murder mystery. "You probably should cut all that out about the town and the people and focus on the murder." But McCammon fought to keep the manuscript the way it was, and so "Boy's Life" is one of my favorite novels on human nature and the magic of childhood there is.

    I've also read "Speaks the Nightbird" and still need to read "Queen of Bedlam", which is next in the Matthew Corbett series. But McCammon has definitely made it onto my list of favorite writers :-)

    1. I haven't read "Boy's Life" in probably twenty years, and my memory of it is very fuzzy, but I loved it back then, and I expect to love it again when I get around to rereading it.

  4. I don't think McCammon ever wrote a bad book. I liked Baal. It was good, but not great. Swan Song was a great book, as was Wolf's Hour and They Thirst.

    I always thought that Bethany's Sin was a sleeper. I really enjoyed this book.

    Blue World is one of the finest mainstream novellas I've ever read and the short stories that go with it range from fair to exceptional.

    I have reviews of Usher's Passing, Swan Song and Blue World on my blog.

  5. I think McCammon wasn't too excited about Baal, feeling it needed more editing before publication.

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  7. here in Spain in a fantasy literature forum a guy has asked about authors similar to King and it seems that McCammon is the more similar... I don't know in the USA but in Spain is a underrated writer readers seems to prefer not so good writers like Koontz
    my favourites are Ushers passing, Mary terror and the collection of stories Blue world
    what about Bethany's sin? are you going to review it? it isn't translated to spanish and the cover by Rowena Merrill is awesome

    1. I do plan on reviewing "Bethany's Sin"; hopefully, David will want to run that one as well! :)

      It's going to be several weeks, though. The next book on my to-read list is "A Clash of Kings" by George R.R. Martin, and that sucker is 1000 pages. After that is "Bethany's Sin," though.

      I've mentioned this before, but I'll say it again: I'm really gratified to see that there are so many other McCammon fans out there.

  8. I have seen that here David, you and the others talk very little about other modern horror authors I like writers like T.E.D. Klein, Dan Simmons, Graham Masterton, Charles L Grant, Dennis Etchison, Joe R Lansdale... I suggest you to read The ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein stilistically is better than Stephen King, can I say that here???, maybe the better book I have read in any genre

    1. I've never read anything by any of those guys, sadly. Simmons and Grant are on my list for sure, though; I might have to check Klein out at some point, too, if he's THAT good.

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  10. even better than that...

    if you prefer you can read his stories, almost novellas, Petey or Children of the kingdom