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 Fiction Review    

 

Speaks the Nightbird
by Robert McCammon
River City Publishing, 2002
Hardcover, $27.95 (726pp)
ISBN: 1-880216-62-0
 
 
 

Robert McCammon’s first novel in 12 years, after the bestselling Boy’s Life and Gone South, is a big, heavy, lengthy story that picks up so much speed as you enter into the eerie world of the South Carolina coast in 1690 that you find yourself turning pages fast to keep up with the action. As with earlier McCammon novels, Speaks the Nightbird has a narrative thrust that grabs the reader and never lets go. But the story itself is different from earlier McCammon. 

“Came the time when the two travellers knew night would catch them, and shelter must be found.” 

Thus begins the tale. 

As with the earlier stories of horror, McCammon the master sets the stage with descriptions of the landscape. Although it had been “a joyful day for frogs and mudhens,” it was not so wonderful for the human characters. As the thunder roars and the rain drenches the earth, the older man, Isaac Woodward, and his younger assistant, Matthew Corbett, find themselves facing what might be termed “end a’ the world,” or so it seems. 

Like a modern-day Dickens with the suspenseful abilities of Arthur Conan Doyle, McCammon, a resident of Birmingham, weaves a tight story that stretches to more than 700 pages that caught the eye of popular novelist Stephen King, who called it “thoughtful as well as entertaining – think ‘Burn Witch Burn’ crossed with Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible.’” 

As the story unfolds we discover that Woodward and Corbett are on their way to a place called Fount Royal. And at the place at the end of the road, the narrative picks up pace as the reader is brought into the midst of a world of characters that are at once like the next door neighbor yet as different as the wicked witch of the west. Fount Royal is not unlike the no-name towns of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns. And the people are not unlike those people. They are good God-fearing folks, yet most have something to hide. What is their secret? we begin to ask ourselves. 

We discover that Woodward is the traveling magistrate, entering Fount Royal to try a lady who is accused of being a witch and practicing witchcraft, and the various stories begin to unfold. 

Is the lady under question, one Rachel Howarth, a lovely person whose husband has been slain, truly a witch? Or is the town’s population opposed to her on other grounds? Did she indeed traipse through the night naked?

In the middle of the night as the two men investigate the crime or crimes, trying to find the truth, the nightbird is heard speaking his screeching sound. 

McCammon the novelist lays his groundwork soundly, deepens the characters of Woodward and Corbett, and peels away the surface of character after character of the towns people as the plot unfolds as smoothly and expertly as a Hitchcock thriller. 

I will not reveal the ending -- or even the way the movement flows with the action. If a reader becomes mesmerized with the people and the plot, he will know there are many others feeling the same eerie feelings as they turn page after page. 

This is a novel which could easily be read by readers’ clubs and discussed for hours on end -- each member giving his or her own twist to what is real and what is false. Who are the good and who the bad? It is the way of any good murder mystery. The one continues to ring in your imagination after you have laid it aside. 

I have no idea if Speaks the Nightbird is McCammon’s best novel. It is his 13th. I haven’t read them all. It is as good if not better than Boy’s Life and Gone South, both of which I read long ago. As those books never left me, I am sure I will remember the sound of the nightbird. 

 

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews
 

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