Review Index

By ROBERT McCAMMON (Pocket; 2007)

Back in the eighties and nineties, as I’m sure you remember, Robert R. McCammon was one of America’s premiere horror writers, whose output included triumphs like SWAN SONG, STINGER, THE WOLF’S HOUR and MINE.  After 1992’s GONE SOUTH, however, McCammon took a ten-year sabbatical, during which he penned a still-unpublished historical novel and reportedly swore off the genre (and elected to drop the R from his moniker).  Yet McCammon’s comeback novel SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD, published in 1992, contained many horrific elements, even if overall it was far more than a mere horror novel, being a rich and multilayered epic set in colonial America.

      This brings us to McCammon’s newest book, THE QUEEN OF BEDLAM, the follow-up to NIGHTBIRD.  It’s another gripping historical saga, set this time in a scrupulously researched early-1700’s New York City.  Again, the story is only tangentially horror related, though perhaps more so than the previous book.  What resonates is the author’s detailed and atmospheric presentation of a bustling would-be metropolis haunted by a shadowy menace.

      That menace is a maniac known as the Masker, a serial killer who leaves his horrifically mutilated victims with the flesh around their eyes carved out in distinctly mask-like fashion.  The young Matthew Corbett, the hero of SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD, is working as a NYC law clerk when the killer strikes.  Matthew is initially a distant observer to the Masker’s demented handiwork, but is drawn into the case upon witnessing the Masker at work on a new victim--who just happens to have been the headmaster at the orphanage where Matthew grew up.

      What follows is suspenseful and satisfying, with Matthew making the acquaintance of many suspicious characters and eventually finding his way to the eponymous insane asylum.  There the “Queen”, a near-catatonic woman who in place of speech repeats a few seemingly nonsensical phrases, is interred.  It seems she holds the key, or least a key, to unraveling the mystery of the Masker. 

      This book, like its predecessor, represents prime McCammon.  It contains the type of breakneck action set pieces (most notably a climactic run through a field of malevolent hawks) and virtuoso plotting that distinguished his earlier books, with a superbly paced, incident-packed 645-page count.  But THE QUEEN OF BEDLAM also contains a maturity and sophistication that place Robert McCammon among the front-ranks of American novelists. 

      I might add that it helps if one has read SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD before cracking this book, but it’s certainly not necessary, as the story is strong enough to stand on its own.  Also, it ends with a cliffhanger, meaning there will be a third volume.

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