Ginger Nuts of Horror
“Superb depression era set supernatural thriller
The enigmatic Robert McCammon continues a literary path which remains almost impossible to categorise or pigeonhole with his latest novel “The Listener”, a truly superb supernatural thriller set in the Great Depression of 1930s America. This author really is a one-off, since 2014 he has written novels set in periods as differing as the Second World War, America in the 1700s, America in the 1860s and a version of today in which Earth is destroyed by two warring alien races. Across these time zones his novels feature werewolves, vampires, witches and a unique blend of historical thriller. Many genre publishers are currently avoiding vampires and werewolves like the plague, but when McCammon approaches well-worn subjects you just know the product will be something fresh and unique. For many years he has ranked amongst the finest writers of dark fiction in the world and “The Listener” sits comfortably with his unmatchable body of work. As this is a stand-alone novel, if you’ve never read McCammon before, this is as good a place to start as any.
John Partlow is a con-man, (a ‘grifter’) who weasels cash from poor unfortunates by scanning the obituaries in local newspapers and then turning up at the door of the deceased trying to sell 25c Bibles to the family for 5USD by pretending the dead family member had pre-ordered the book and has already paid a 1USD deposit. If he is successful, he is 4USD richer and there are a lot of suckers out there. Partlow may be silver-tongued, but he also has a very nasty mean streak and is a terrific character to drive major sections of this novel. Whilst stuck in a dead-end town waiting for his car to be repaired John chances upon an evening show in a local hotel and realises two other grifters are at work. Intrigued at their scam, soon he is entwined with the sultry Ginger LaFrance who makes him an offer he just cannot refuse. The chance to earn 50% of 250,000USD in the mother of all cons, but it’s not going to be easy. And in the end of the day who is conning who is one of the questions this terrific novel keeps finally balanced?
Elsewhere Curtis Mayhew is a young black man who works as a luggage carrier (a redcap) for the Union Railroad Station. Bearing in mind this in the mid-1930s race plays a prominent, convincing, and powerful part of the story. Blacks don’t mix with whites and although they are no longer slaves they are still treated like dirt and Curtis deals with this on a daily in his job, but with good grace and dignity. By McCammon’s standards this is not a long novel, but is very cleverly paced and highly entertaining in discovering how the two sets of characters converge.
Curtis has some strange ‘talents’, firstly, he has a reputation for the ability to mend quarrels, fights and misunderstandings. For example, when a friend has been playing around behind the back of his girlfriend, Curtis has the weird ability of helping her forgive him. Oddly, the novel does not explore this ‘talent’ or really explain it, and I wondered what was the point of him having it at all? However, his second ‘talent’ is crucial to the story, his ability to hear the voices of others who have the same gift as himself. As he comes from a Christian family his talent is seen as a curse and he if left to deal with it on his own.
As with all McCammon novels “The Listener” has a terrific sense of time and place, particularly the plight of Curtis as he tries to do the right thing in a world that only sees his colour. It was littered with so many well drawn characters, both major and minor, some who lived and others who died. Once the spunky little children are introduced it just gets better and better as they put up a terrific fight for survival. Curtis was the real star of the novel though, eclipsing even Paltrow, and features in many memorable scenes. A favourite was him excited to be attending the birthday party of a girl he likes, but realising she is way out of his league and is merely exploited for his ‘talent’ at the party. The stories of grifting which lead into the main plotline are also very clever and you’ll have a chuckle at the scam which leads to Ginger selling fake Spanish Fly to unsuspecting country hicks.
“The Listener” was a powerful character driven novel, backed up with a very tight plot which made it very easy to read in a couple of days. You’ll devour every exquisitely crafted sentence. The balance of Curtis trying to do the right thing against several downright nasty characters was perfectly pitched and you may even have a tear in your eye by the end. Although McCammon downplays the supernatural elements of this novel, the ability of Curtis to ‘listen’ develops with the story, but ultimately the heady mix of race, class and family drive the plot to a very poignant ending. Highly recommended as Robert McCammon always is.