Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Book Review: The Listener by Robert R. McCammon

The Listener by Robert R. McCammon

Hardcover, 332 pages

Published February 2018 by Cemetery Dance Publications

Anyone that follows my reviews knows that Robert R. McCammon is one of my favorite living writers. His ability to tell a story effectively in the novel format is pretty much unmatched. I am not sure it is possible for him to write a bad book. Gone South, Mine and of course Swan Song are some of my favorite books of all time. When I heard about this book coming out from Cemetery Dance I was beyond thrilled. While I am not as big of a fan of his Matthew Corbett historical mysteries recent novels like The Five and I Travel by Night have hit my sweet spot. Those were both returns to earlier styles of McCammon novels of the 80's and 90's. The Five was an action driven suspense novel about a Rock and roll band that mixed the music world with something like the Hitcher. It was a hell of a read Stephen King even called it McCammon's best.

I Travel by Night was a neat little monster/horror/western that I enjoyed. I would personally consider the Listener a novel or horror, released by a horror publisher in Cemetery Dance, I am not sure exactly why it was labeled on the cover as a "Novel of Suspense." I mean it is a novel of Suspense sure, but it is a novel filled with genuine moments of horror, and even supernatural elements. So I am confused by this tag line. While we are talking about the cover it is as boring of a design as I can remember which is too bad because it is an expensive book.

I went into this novel entirely cold on the plot, knowing nothing at all and reading it based on McCammon's strength of work in the past. This is an excellent way to approach this story as it has a few twists that benefit from having no preconceptions.

Is it a favorite of mine? Compared to McCammon's past work I would say - not even close. Don't get me wrong his worst novel is probably 100 times better than most. It is interesting because some of this review is going to sound negative but that has to do with the super high bar RRM has set for himself. For each element I didn't like there were elements I loved. Over all I had a great reading experience and consider it a four out of five star book despite major issues.

My favorite thing about the Listener is how many "rules" McCammon breaks in telling this story and it doesn't suffer for it. in a 3rd person narrative like this most editors never want you to change the point of view in chapters, even with clear breaks. Some want you to pick one POV for a whole book and never change it. There are times in this book when the POV shifts mid paragraph and even one sentence to the next. I personally consider that a huge No-no, but RRM somehow pulls it off.

The novel spends the first 84 pages establishing the character who turns out to be a villain, a interesting choice because it makes him sympathetic before he does awful stuff. John Partlow who goes by several names in the book is a con man. The opening con where he sells bibles to illiterate widows does a good job of setting up the depression era setting in the south. We then follow along as he meets Ginger a conwoman with a plan. After the first chapters we get a change in setting. The character of Curtis Mayhew is a red cap at the train station a young black-man who has always had a special talent. He hears voices They are people across the miles he hears like a telepathic phone call he talks to the other rare people with his talent.

One of those people is a young child We eventually learn that she is the child of a rich businessman. of course these stories weave together when we discover that Crutis is listening in on the young child's kidnapping. This sets up a cat and mouse game that creates plenty of scary moments. Those most frightening moments however come from the race issues inherit to the era it takes place in. Imagine you are a young black man in 1934 claiming to have knowledge of a kidnapping in the south? Yeah it gets ugly.

Over all I liked the novel but one thing really bugged me. McCammon often gets compared to Stephen King, it doesn't help when novels like Swan Song appear to be very, very much like The Stand. I would argue that Swan Song is a better book, but still that criticism had dogged McCammon for years. In this novel RRM not only uses an overused Stephen King trop he uses the most cringe worthy one I can think of. King has this problem with using characters who are what Spike Lee called the "magical negro." The Shining, The Stand, Green Mile and even last year in Sleeping Beauties. This didn't ruin my enjoyment of the novel it just made me uncomfortable.

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