Horror Book Review: Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

Swan Song is a post apocalyptic horror novel by American author, Robert R. McCammon, that was published on June 1, 1987.

Swan Song is a work of post-apocalyptic fiction describing the aftermath of a nuclear war that provokes an evolution and devolution in humankind. Swan Song won the 1987 Bram Stoker award, tying with Stephen King‘s Misery for 1st place and getting the Robert R. McCammon name on the much coveted award.

Robert Rick McCammon was born in 1952 and is an American novelist from Birmingham, Alabama. He is seen as one of the influential names in the late 1970s–early 1990s American horror literature boom, and by 1991 McCammon had three New York Times bestsellers in The Wolf’s Hour, Stinger, and Swan Song, and had around 5 million books in print. Since 2002 he’s written several books in a historical mystery series featuring a 17th-century magistrate’s clerk, Matthew Corbett, as he unravels mysteries in colonial America.

McCammon has published multiple award-winning books, including Mine in 1990 and Boy’s Life in 1991, and had his story, Nightcrawlers adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone. While he has breaks and time away from writing, and moved into a different genre direction with many of his most recent works, he is still rightly regarded as a huge influence on horror literature.

Swan Song by Robert R McCammon

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The story of Swan Song start really with all too familiar a setting and something that hasn’t changed over the decades between when this book was written and where we are today. There is extreme tension between the United States and the then, Soviet Union. These tensions keep rising, leaving the President of the United States and his many advisors to make a decision between waiting to be attacked, or attacking first. The President is reluctant to be the instigator but is heavily influenced and at the peak of tensions, with the press of a button, the two superpowers engage in nuclear war.

The United States is very quickly reduced to a barren wasteland covered by the snows of nuclear winter. The President, flying to potential safety feels immense guilt and prepares some kind of system known only as Talons to launch. The only thing we know about it is it is intriduced with the line of “if we can’t ever set foot on the ground of the United States again, this will ensure noone else can either”. Unfortunately, or thankfully, his plane crashes before he can activate it.

Around this point, the story splits into different character arcs starting not long before the detonation. This is really where I felt a lot of The Stand as we essentially meet a collection of people, on different paths, heading to the same place and who become “the good guys”. We also meet another group, who essentially become “the bad guys”. All the while, we meet a 3rd party who appears to not be human and revels in the anarchy. A being who also reaks of Randall Flagg. I don’t mean any of this as in one copied the other, I just think it is such a tried and tested idea that works so well and has been used my many authors and story tellers. A rabble of strangers trying to survive, but keep their morals, group together and fight off evil.

Anyway, to our individuals we have Josh Hutchins, a huge hulk of a man who works the local circuits as a small time wrestler. He has finished a job and is heading off towards his next pay day when he stops at a gas station in Kansas for fuel. We meet Sister Creep, a homeless, religious fanatic who, having finished her day screaming at people on the streets of New York about their eternal damnation, is down deep in the subways looking for somewhere to lay her head and steer clear of thieves for the night.

We meet a young girl named Sue Wanda. She is playing with flowers outside her run down home while her mother, and latest “father” are going at each other inside. Sue Wanda, or Swan (yep, this is her story) seems quiet but has something about her as we get hints of her talking to plants and hear her mother’s latest, no good squeeze calling her a freak. Anyway, Swan’s Mom has enough, again, grabs her stuff, grabs her daughter and leaves her latest abusive relationship. They head off, stopping at a gas station in Kansas for fuel and food on their way.

We meet the Croninger family and specifically their son, Roland. They are at an exclusive facility dug into a mountain in Idaho. This one of the places the wealthy and powerful get to stay at during such apocalyptic events. They are just here for a tour though, led by a war hero called Colonel Macklin, someone Roland idolises. There a few hundred others with them as they have come to spend a few nights and see what their money is paying for and how safe they will be if they ever need to shelter.

Then the bombs drop……………..

Swan Song by Robert R McCammon other cover

Josh, Swan, her mother and the gas station owner take cover in the basement of the store, trapped beneath rubble, badly injured with limited air and no way out. Sister Creep was deep enough in the tunnels that she escaped with minor injuries as she crawls through the chaos trying to reach the surface. Roland and the Colonel, along with all those in the shelter, start to find out that some corners have been cut with their build as the whole mountain starts to cave in on itself. Hundreds die in the facility and  those that remain turn on the Colonel, all except for Roland.

The Colonel is his hero after all though we do start wondering about Roland’s own mental state when he, blinded by chaos and rage kills his own father, and many others, to protect the Colonel forming some sort of monstrous alliance as they crawl through crumbling shafts and vents aiming for the surface.

With heavy descriptions of chaos and death, some truly gross and gory depictions, the story darkens even more. One of the most harrowing sections of this book is Josh and Swan in the basement of the store. It doesn’t sound it but the clausthrophobic nature of what is described pours out of the pages and you feel fucking terrible for them. Swan sits their, meek and mild, afraid while her mother dies in the corner. The store owner is already dead and starting to rot, Josh is hurt badly and Swan is injured too. They cannot sit up due to space, cannot see anything and air is running out. It’s horrible.

I also really love this part of the book because it gives us the introduction to the fantasy side of things letting you know this is more than a nuclear survival story. We see Sister Creep, soon to be known as just Sister, come across a beautiful and strange precious stone or ring that appears to have been created during all of the explosions. It’s light is intense and, when held, it seems to show visions though their meaning is not yet understood. When Sister looks through it, she sees a little girl and a big hulk of a man and takes this as a message from on high that she should go and find them. The girl seems important.

Meanwhile, in the store basement, the corpse of the store owner appears to come back to life, delivering a simple message to Josh before returning to being a corpse again. Protect the girl at all costs. When Josh and Swan finally dig their way out, we see some of Swan’s normal power as she persudades a defeated Josh to stand strong and move forwards. We also see her true gift, and her importance in this sunless and desolate wasteland ,when she brings a fruit tree back to life fully. Swan has an empathic ability with plant life, allowing her to accelerate the growth of or resurrect dead plants through physical contact. She is crucial to humanities future, if there is to be one.

Sister also meets The Man with the Scarlet Eye. We meet know him by other names – he could be the Devil, Legion, a Demon, a God – what we do know though is he is powerful, is loving the chaos and may even have had a hand in it as we see him use whispers and thoughts to manipulate humans to his will, and that will is destruction. He feeds off the anguish, he hates any symbol of hope. So, when he meets Sister and her ring of light, it becomes his obsession. He must destroy that ring for fear of it galvanising people in hope. He does not yet know of any others, he does not know of a little girl digging her way out of a store basement in Kansas that could become the ultimate symbol of humanities hopes.

Swan Song by Robert R McCammon other cover 2

Josh and Swan, wandering through post-apocalyptic America, meet Leona Skelton, who predicts via tarot cards that Swan will have to face the Devil. Sister and a new found friend, Artie, meet  Paul Thorsen, the leader of a small group of survivors, and continue their journey in his truck. Macklin and Roland reach the Great Salt Lake and discover a relatively well-maintained and guarded camp led by the narcissistic Kempka. Macklin and Roland capture drug addict Shiela and use her supply to bargain with Kempka and move into the camp. After Roland kills Kempka, Macklin assumes command and introduces military discipline to the camp, establishing the “Army of Excellence” (AoE).

Meanwhile, Josh, Swan, and Leona find themselves trapped in a former K-Mart taken over by escaped psychiatric hospital patients; Leona sacrifices herself to allow Josh and Swan to escape from the group’s leader Alvin Magrim. The pair then meet Rusty, the last survivor of a traveling circus.

Seven years pass; the clouds do not dissipate, radioactive fallout persists, and many survivors suffer from “Job’s Mask”, a strange skin disease that obscures the head and face with fleshy tissue. The AoE, now a ferocious army of 4,000 soldiers (and including Alvin), moves across America and ravages settlements. The AoE goes to war against an equally armed and fanatical group, the “American Allegiance”; its leader, the self-proclaimed prophet Brother Timothy, is convinced that God lives on Warwick Mountain in West Virginia. Sister and Paul wander the Midwest and meet a group of orphans led by teenager Robin Oakes. Josh, Swan, and Rusty wander the country as a troupe of itinerant entertainers; Swan is blinded by Job’s Mask, but shows miraculous new powers by reviving dead plants. Sister and Paul are guided toward Swan by Sister’s visions, and are still pursued by the Man with the Scarlet Eye.

Finally the parties meet in the settlement of Mary’s Rest. Sister determines that she has reached her goal and hands the ring to Swan, who is greeted by visions of a blooming paradise. Her Job’s Mask crumbles to pieces, revealing a beautiful face. Gradually, other characters lose their Job’s Masks, and underneath are transformed faces that are beautiful or ugly depending on the person’s spiritual qualities. At Mary’s Rest, Swan brings the fields and people really back to life, accelerating the growing of food and becoming a saviour in the eyes of those on the settlement. They would die for her. They may have to as the AoE, now under the manipulation of The Man with the Scarlet Eye approach with intent to wipe them out bringing us towards the ending when good and evil will face off and decide the fate of all humanity in the final Swan Song.

Robert R. McCammon penned an absolute masterpiece with Swan Song. I can’t believe how I have never read it before, it is so up my street in terms of story and preferences. I adored this story, feeling completely mesmerised by the story and characters and the flow. It is an exciting book and comes with a huge amount of horrific scenes, lashings of despair and emotion. I felt the characters were developed wonderfully and while it is Swan’s journey really, every character, good or bad, was given plenty of time so that you either cared about them, understood them or could feel horrified by them.

I know Swan is fictitious but even I feel ready to lay my life down to protect her, such is her pull and such is the quality of the writing. Swan Song is a masterful story, showing an author at his peak and a book that should be put on  a pedestal as an example of how to write a story that completely engages your reader.

Robert R. McCammon Links

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  • Brendan Fisher

    Owner/Editor/Writer/YouTuber - Heavy Metal and reading, two things I have always loved so they are the two areas you will find most of my reviews. Post apocalyptic is my jam and I always have a book on the go and have for decades now. From a metal perspective, age has softened my inadequacies and I now operate with an open mind, loving many bands from many sub genres but having a particular admiration for the UK underground scene. In my other time, when not focused on Dad duties and work, I try to support the craft beer movement by drinking as much of it as I can and you will also find me out on the streets, walking. I love walking, I love exploring new places and snapping nature photos as I go.

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon
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