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Bookends: What became of the world after all the bombs were dropped June 4, 2013

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Bookends: What became of the world after all the bombs were dropped

Swan Song

By Dan Davidson

February 6, 2013

 

Swan Song

By Robert J. McCammon

Pocket Books

856 pages

$24.00

 

Swan Song follows the lives of three groups of survivors of the holocaust that follows when all the red buttons have been pressed at once, all over the world. In a scenario familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic science fiction novels, and such television shows as “Jeremiah”, “Jericho” or the current series, “Revolution”, America breaks into a series of survivalist “republics”, each struggling to recreate its own vision of what used to be, working with meagre and damaged resources to achieve that end.

In the first section of the book we meet our main cast. Swan, the title character, begins as a young girl who is befriended by a down-on-his luck black wrestler named Josh. They both survive the atomic destruction in a crude fallout shelter that had become the basement and storeroom of a roadside garage. Swan has an uncanny ability to cultivate and grow plant life. At first this seems like a regular green thumb, but as the story moves on, it becomes something more.

In New York we meet Sister Creep, a bag lady whose mental breakdown seems to be cured by living though the bombing while huddling in subway tunnels. She pairs up with a man named Artie, who is determined to go home to his wife, even though he knows she must be dead. Sister (as she is known when her mind returns) comes into possession of a strange talisman, a circle of fused glass and gemstones, which grants her (and sometimes other people) visions and urges her to travel in a westerly direction.

Colonel Macklin is a former soldier and survivalist who is the front man for a survivalist bunker scam built in a former mine. He’s more than slightly crazy as a result of his experiences in Viet Nam.

Roland Croninger is a teenage role-playing gamer who fancies himself “Sir Roland” after the disaster collapses the bunker and helps Macklin build what will be one of the rampaging armies, The Army or Excellence, that will ravage the land as the years go by.

Both eventually fall under the influence of The Man with the Scarlet Eye, who seems to be an avatar of the devil.

As you would expect, we follow the individual quests of these people until they come together during the last 200 or so pages of the book, after the passage of more than a decade. Sister is drawn to Swan by her visions. Swan develops the ability to revitalize dying plants and bring new life to dead agricultural land. The Man with the Scarlet Eye wants to silence both of them, for they have the capacity to limit the spread of the chaos on which he thrives.

One of the unique features of the novel is the development of the ailment called the Job’s Mask, a cartilage-like bony growth that eventually covers the heads of many of the people in the story. At a certain point the masks crack and fall off peoples’ faces, revealing their “true face”, the visage that fits most closely the kind of person they really are. As you can imagine, some of the results are quite horrific, while others are quite the opposite.

There are a number of similarities between McCammon’s 1987 novel and Stephen King’s earlier book, The Stand, which predates it by about nine years.

Each book deals with the total collapse of civilization, King’s brought on by a rabid flu-like disease and McCammon’s by global thermonuclear war. Both concentrate on the impact of the disaster on the United States and both involve continent crossing quests. Both have a character who seems to personify evil and who has had something to do with the collapse.

King’s was Roland, or the Walkin’ Dude, who would later turn up as the Man in Black in his Dark Tower saga.

McCammon’s doesn’t have a name other than the descriptive one I’ve used  (or sometimes the Man of Many Faces) but his close association with flies suggests what his true name might be.

The biggest difference between the books is probably that McCammon’s has been out of print for over a decade, until the last few years. Unlike King, when McCammon decided to write less in the horror genre and more in the mainstream, he ran into resistance from his publishers, despite the fact that his work sold well and had picked up a number of the same genre awards and nominations. This one took the 1988 Bram Stoker Award for best novel, a prize he would win twice more during that phase of his career.

After a 10-year hiatus in that career he began publishing again, concentrating on a series of historical novels featuring Matthew Corbett, which seems to be a cross-genre blend of thriller and detective story set in the 18th Century.

I had read some of McCammon’s earlier novels years ago and had wondered what had become of him, so when this one turned up I was happy to have the publisher send it along.

 

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