Gone South - Robert R McCammon
Whatever happened to RRMcC? For a while, in the 80s and early 90s, his books were up there on the shelves with Stephen King and Dean Koontz, but in the last ten years or so there's been nary a word from the man. Did he give up writing? Did King sue him for nicking his plots? Or did he move to the mainstream and get his books shelved in the aisles I rarely visit? If anything, this book suggests it ought to have been the latter.
I have sunny memories of this book; I bought it in '94, in Austin, TX, just a few days out from the Delta, and read it on the lawns by the Capitol building while I waited for the bus to El Paso. I'd entirely fallen in love with the swamps and bayous of Louisiana, so a journey down into the heart of the delta was just the book I wanted. And what a great opening sentence!
It was Hell's season, and the air smelled of burning children.
The story is actually very simple - dying Vietnam vet Dan Lambert is on the run after accidentally killing a man; two unusual bounty hunters are on his tail; he meets a girl on a quest for a mythical faith healer and they all plunge into the swamps, getting mixed up with some very bad men on the way. It's a far cry from some of his earlier books, which did often seem to be Stephen King novels with the word "Maine" crossed out and "Alabama" written in instead - no supernatural horror here; the blurb describes it as "Southern Gothic" which seems as good a description as any.
It's still fairly pulpy, and a lot of the minor characters are hastily-sketched ciphers with painfully clunky dialogue, but if you can get past that then it's a fast-paced and entertaining read. The swamp is exactly as miasmic and dangerous as it should be, and the main characters' eccentric quirks, while initially a bit gimmicky, are well handled. The ending, too, is nicely done - I now can't remember whether or not it was a surprise, but even if you do see what's coming, it's a good, grown-up conclusion to the journey. With the horror genre now fairly moribund, it's nice to think that McCammon has other tricks up his sleeve.