REVIEWED BY TONY JONES
“The annihilation of mankind is but a heartbeat away”
It is most definitely odd to be reviewing a novel which even though it was only published by Subterranean Press in 2015, is already incredibly difficult to locate. Unless you are fortunate enough to snag the odd copy on Ebay or have the resources to pay the current Amazon UK price tag ranging from £83 to £476 that is what it costs to read this book. But why is there such a hefty sum to read Robert McCammon’s rather excellent “The Border”? I did a little digging…. Subterranean Press only produced a single hardback edition, one pressing only, with no prospect of a second. There is, for an unknown reason, no future prospect of a paperback edition. However, if you live in America, you can pick the novel up on ebook. That’s it, folks….
Some of you younger horror fans may say “So what?” Well, if you’ve been around horror a while you’ll know that once upon a time Robert McCammon was one of America’s leading horror authors, who for various reasons got bored writing in the genre, took long sabbaticals away from writing entirely, retired, (un)retired and returned to write a lot of varied (non-horror) fiction and then focussed primarily on historical fiction. This exceptionally versatile and gifted writer walked away from horror, and many of his fans simply didn’t follow. Just the other week I was chatting to UK horror writer Rich Hawkins about what we were both reading, and he commented “I haven’t read McCammon in years” and that probably just about sums it up for many…..
But hold your horses, Robert McCammon is most definitely BACK! This new novel is a scintillating return to the sort of horror fiction that made him famous in the first place, effortlessly fusing horror with fantasy and science fiction. Existing reviews rightfully compare it to his masterpiece “Swan Song” and justly so, it’s that good. If you haven’t read “Swan Song” I can’t recommend this crackerjack of a novel highly enough. It’s one of the finest post-apocalyptic novels around and stands at the higher echelons of the subgenre along with Stephen King’s “The Stand”, David Brin’s “The Postman”, Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and whichever else you can think of. It’s cheap to buy on ebook; you really won’t be disappointed, it is 900 pages of total perfection.
When “The Border” was published in 2015 it went out of print the day it was released, and no copies were likely sold via Amazon UK at all. I know this as I was waiting and watching to order a copy when it briefly went on the market. Initially, I thought its unavailability probably meant an inferior product, however, I was amazed how good it was and how refreshing it was to reconnect with an author I had been a fan of for many years. McCammon might not have written this sort of novel for years, but he doesn’t miss a beat, delivering a pulsating tale in which the world is almost entirely destroyed by two feuding alien races that appear in our skies 48 hours apart of each other. Their technology is so advanced they see mankind as mere insects, an irritation, and they use our planet as their battleground. ‘The Border’ of the title, our planet, being their version of the trenches of World War One. The novel opens two years later when humanity is all but destroyed, and the aliens have now begun to experiment on the survivors, turning them into weapons and other horrific monsters and bestial creations.
So I struggled to put this book down, at the same time I paced myself for maximum enjoyment. While reading I struggled to understand why this book was so hard to find? It’s a publishing mystery….. Great books usually rise to the top eventually…. I then tracked down Hunter Goatley who runs the McCammon Facebook page and other McCammon online interests. Amazingly, Hunter said that no paperback publisher had expressed any interest in the book. Unbelievable. Although Subterranean Press had released trade paperbacks of other McCammon novels, they had no plans for this particular title or a second hardback run. The best news Hunter shared was that “The Border” and other novels will hopefully appear as internationally ebooks in 2017, but there is nothing set in stone yet. If you’re interested in McCammon Hunter does a great job of keeping his Facebook page up to date with news and an assortment of tip-bits on new and rereleases.
The survivors on Earth call the two alien races ‘Gorgons’ and ‘Cyphers’ and as the twilight of mankind approaches a possible saviour appears in the guise of a teenage boy who has lost his memory after surviving a horrific alien attack that wiped out the rest of his group. Deciding to name himself after a local high school he passes ‘Ethan Gaines’ discovers another group of survivors who test his blood with a saline solution to see if he truly is human. Although he looks human, something about his is not, but neither is he Gorgon or Cypher. This is the first major plot echo of ‘SwanSong’ with the introduction of a character who is a potential saviour. The second major similarity is the journey Ethan and his new friends have to go on, based on a strange feeling. There are further echoes of ‘SwanSong’ here, but at the end of the day, most post-apocalyptic fiction novels have journeys of some kind or another. To say any more of the plot would ruin it…..
Along the way we are treated to some top-notch action sequences as both the Gorgans and Cyphers stalk Ethan as they are unsure what he is, but want his secrets. The supporting characters are terrific, the friendships formed are beautiful and some of the death scenes heart-breaking. Every character in this novel has lost so much, there are no hard-men, but there are lots of ordinary everyday heroes trying to survive and the empathy felt is overpowering. Along the way some of the alien creations are simply jaw-dropping, they have the ability to turn inanimate objects into living flesh, so trashed buses can become very dangerous killing machines. Humans who have become infected slowly change into something called ‘Grey Men’, these are particularly horrible creations which can grow two or three heads after a slow, painful, and horrible transformation into something no longer human. Millions of these things stalk the destroyed cities and towns.
I had forgotten how beautiful a writer Robert McCammon is when he is in full flow. He opens the door to this destroyed world, and the reader believes every word of it, hook, line and sinker. You will love Ethan Gaines, he is such a tremendous character, and you will fight his battles with him like you were punched in the gut. Let’s hope the ebook does appear in the UK in 2017, and more folks get the chance to read this terrific novel.
If I was hyper-critical, and I mean HYPER, I would have liked to find out more about both the Gorgans and the Cyphers than the novel gave away. Also, you could argue that the ending was all a little bit neat, I still loved it and thought the moving conclusion was great.
Revisiting McCammon got me thinking about all the cool books this guy has written. If you can’t get hold of “The Border” try and of these other novels, they’re all great: “They Thirst”, “Stinger”, or “Boy’s Life” (all horror) or “Gone South” (thriller) or “The Five” (about a disintegrating rock band).