Speaks the Nightbird - Robert McCammon
Judgement of the Witch
He's back! In fact, he's been back for a few years, as these books came out in around 2002, but have received shamefully little attention. Is it because no-one recognises him without that extra R? Or perhaps because nobody really buys horror any more? One thing's for certain - it can't be down to a lack of quality; this may not be the best thing he's ever written, but neither is it the worst, and after a clunky start it turns into a compulsively readable bit of gothic horror. Set in 1699 in a frontier town being carved out on the South Carolina coast, this is a tale of a witch-trial that exposes far more than anyone intended, with enough small-town freakishness to make even David Lynch uneasy.
Our hero's name is Matthew Corbett, which is a little distracting at first ("What's that, Sooty? Sweep's in league with the Devil?"), though not quite as distracting as the jarring viewpoint shifts which pepper the first few chapters. He is the young assistant to Isaac Woodward, the decent but hidebound magistrate who has been summoned to Fount Royal to try the witch. You can probably guess what happens in the investigation - jealous and superstitious townsfolk want the witch to burn; young Matthew starts to find holes in the testimony and evidence of dirty deeds elsewhere, but can't get anyone to take him seriously; traditionalist Woodward wants to do the right thing, but can't see beyond the surface evidence and the legal precedent of Salem. The bones of the plot may be a Standard Unfair Witchtrial-by-numbers, but there's a lot more inventiveness elsewhere.
Quite apart from the sheer amount of entertaining skulduggery going on beneath the town's façade, McCammon has still got a great gift for description, and the miasmic swamplands are conjured up effortlessly - I was often quite surprised to look up from my book and find that it wasn't humid and raining. Once Woodward's main investigation is out of the way, the plot takes some more interesting turns too, which means that the second book was rather more enjoyable than the first. There are some great comic moments, particularly Matthew's dinner with the dreadful Vaughan family, and mostly they don't clash too badly with the darker tone of the book.
Speaks the Nightbird isn't perfect - the attempt at a period style at first looks clumsy and forced, the ending ties it all up rather too conveniently, and the mystery itself largely depends on the characters not having basic forensic knowledge that we would nowadays take for granted - but it's such a compelling read that I don't really begrudge any of this. It's a good, standard bit of dark historical fiction, with swamps, ratcatchers and pirate gold, and while it may not quite be a return to form, a return to anything from Mr McCammon is very welcome indeed.