Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Usher's Passing - Robert McCammon

Title: Usher’s Passing 
Author: Robert McCammon 
Publishing Information: Ballantine Books, New York (1985), originally published Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1984) 
Source: My library (paperback) 

Short Bio: (July 17, 1952 to present) Robert Rick McCammon was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, by his grandparents who took him in after his parents divorced.  He was expected to take over the family furniture business when he grew up but instead chose a much different path.  After graduating in 1974 from the University of Alabama with a B.A. in Journalism, he obtained a job writing advertising copy for various Birmingham based businesses and newspapers. However, thank goodness for us, his writing skills did not languish there.  He soon tried his hand  at writing short stories, with little success, but in 1978 he received an acceptance letter for his first horror novel, Baal. After that his career blossomed with the publication of  twelve novels (including They Thirst (1981), Usher’s Passing (1984), Swan’s Song (1987), and Boy’s Life (1991)), one approximately every two to three years, until 1992 when he decided to take a break from writing to spend time with his family after the birth of his first child. Three years later, he once again took up the pen, but felt at that time that he had outgrown the horror genre and decided to write a historical fiction set in Colonial America (Speaks the Nightbird). He chose a new publisher to present his book too, but they wanted to change the  premise to make it more of a historical romance, which was unacceptable to McCammon. He tried to sell it to other publishers, but no one wanted it, stating in various ways that it was outside the established genre of his readership (horror) and thus they didn’t think it would sell. So, he withdrew it from consideration. Trying to get his feet back under him, he embarked on a new novel, one set during World War II (The Village), but the impact of rejection hit him hard and he found himself spiraling into a deep depression. Three years of struggle later, he finally dug himself out and finished The Village.  At that time (1998) he wrote a heartfelt letter to his readership *, explaining a little bit about what had occurred during his long six year hiatus, specifically touching on his need to pursue topics other than horror as a writer and his understanding that this decision might spell the end of his writing career.  Thankfully, though The Village has yet to be published, in 2002 a small publishing house, River City Publishing, decided to give him a chance and printed 50,000 copies of Speaks the Nightbird. The novel was well received and has since been reprinted by Pocket Books. (It is an incredible book and well worth the read – I’ll post another review on it later). Nightbird broke McCammon's writer’s block and he has now successfully placed three new additions to his Colonial American series (The Queen of Bedlam, Mister Slaughter, and The Providence Rider), a handful of other novels (The Five and I Travel by Night) and a short story collection (The Hunter from the Woods).

Comments on the Story: 
Usher’s Passing was my introduction to McCammon, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Right from the first paragraph I was mesmerized:

“Thunder echoed like an iron bell above the sprawl of New York City. In the heavy air, lightning crackled and thrust at the earth striking the high Gothic steeple of James Renwick’s new Grace Church on East Tenth Street then sizzling to death a half-blind drayhorse on the squatter’s flatlands north of Fourteenth. The horse’s owner bleated in terror and leaped for his life as his cart overturned, sinking its load of potatoes into eight inches of mud.”

Immediately I was there, ankle deep in mud with the driver, soaking wet from the rain, devastated by both by the death of the horse and the man’s livelihood. Powerful. Detailed. Atmospheric writing. And it only gets better from there.

As the narration continues, we find ourselves in the year 1847, traveling the streets with Hudson Usher as he seeks someone amidst the many seedy bars of lower Manhattan.  That someone is none other than Edgar Allen Poe. Hudson wishes to confront this man about his authorship of The Fall of the House of Usher, a story, which Hudson claims, is not fiction, but based on the actual death of his beloved brother, Roderick, who perished in a flood that destroyed their family home in Pennsylvania.  Poe refuses to apologize for the story itself, and though he admits that he may have been inspired by tales he’d heard about the incident, he denies any intention to malign the Usher name. He wishes the man a “long and profitable existence." And Hudson, seeing the man reeking of alcohol and dressed in filthy clothes, responds, “And may your fortunes continue their course.” To both men, these adieux prove true.

Flash forward to the present and we meet the main narrator of the story, Rix Usher, a struggling horror story writer, who is meeting with his publisher in New York City when an unexpected visit from his brother, Boone, calls him back to the family home, called Usherland and now located in North Carolina. Their father is dying. Reluctantly, Rix agrees to return, but only after being asked a second time by the man who raised him, the groundskeeper of Usherland, Edwin Bodane. The Usher family, to put it mildly, is overly eccentric and riddled with intrigue. They have built an empire out of designing complex armaments for the government – weapons used to level cities. Rix from an early age, never fit in with the family and spent most of his adult years trying to distance himself from them. Returning takes an act of will that exhausts him.

He arrives home to find his father ensconced in the attic, no more than a rotting corpse on a life support system.  He is succumbing to the final stages of the Usher Malady – an acute sensitivity to all sensory impulses.  It is an illness which plagues the entire Usher line, and worsens the further one gets from Usherland.  Rix has suffered from it for years, and as a result returns to his childhood home thin and sickly, not much more healthy than his father, and definitely not equipped to deal with the family.  He is verbally assaulted by his mother, a woman who is definitely in denial about something, abused by his brother, taunted by his debutant sister and caused to suffer the sickening advances of Boone’s overly painted, past her prime, former beauty queen wife. And all of that is before he goes up to see his father – a meeting punctuated by a  series of belittling and ego-shattering comments about Rix’s decision to be a writer rather than go into the family business (there are a lot of similarities to McCammon’s early career here).  At this point Rix is ready to leave and never return, but his father softens and asks that he stay, at least for a few days, for his mother’s sake. Reluctantly, again, Rix agrees, but little does he know, the old man has a lot more up his sleeve than just bones and festering wounds. He has plans for Rix, plans far beyond even Rix’s abundant imagination. Plans that will take him to hell and back again, with a twist.

McCammon takes us on a roller-coaster ride of suspense and horror, some quite grisly, as he weaves this wonderful tale.  In a very daring move, he uses  one of Poe’s most beloved stories as a spring board and gives it a brand new life full of rich characters and incredible scenery. But his inspiration from Poe doesn’t stop there.  Throughout the novel he intersperses various allusions, both big and small, to some of Poe’s tales. Some of the more overt ones consist of a legendary big black cat, called Greediguts by the locals (The Black Cat), who allegedly roams the mountains of North Carolina abducting and devouring children, and the Lodge (The Fall of the House of Usher), the massive and foreboding  ancestral home of the Ushers. It contains hundreds of rooms, most built by Erik, Rix’s grandfather, as a way to continually produce noise and vibrations throughout the house so as to drive his father, who was wracked with the Usher Malady, to suicide and thus allow Erik to take over the family business. A few of the more subtle tie-ins include a description of Hudson’s face in the first chapter as being “free of any telltale wrinkles” (The Tell-Tale Heart), and, a few paragraphs later, Poe offering Hudson some amontillado (The Cask of Amontillado). There is an interesting (though not very well written, in my opinion) article written by Marian Motley-Carcache (which can be found on McCammon’s website **) outlining even more of these allusions 

All in all, I found this book to be at the very top of my good reads list.  After turning the last page, I felt such a nagging pain of loss at having finished the story that I had to immediately sink my teeth into McCammon’s Swan Song and then Speaks the Nightbird.  If you enjoy exceptionally well written description and cracker-jack dialog, I suggest you give McCammon a try.  However, a word of warning, his descriptions and plots can tend towards the absolutely horrific and demonic. His imagination seems to have no bounds.

Additional Information: 
Websites used to prepare the Short Bio consist of: 

Note to anyone who enjoys McCammon's work, he has made a decision to refuse any republication rights to his older works.  So if you have his first few novels, hold on to them.  And if you do not, check out or other used book stores for copies.


  1. This is an excellent review which caused us to be intrigued both by the author and by his work. If it weren't for the demonic influence, we might try it ourselves.

  2. Outside of Baal and Swan Song, I wouldn't say their is much of a demonic influence on his work. I liked the review and think you did a good job of it, but I strongly disagree with that. And if you haven't read them yet, try Mystery Walk and Stinger.

  3. Thank you for your comment, I greatly appreciate the feedback. My intention in using the word "demonic" was to convey McCammon's ability to convey the dark side of the world -- be that of the supernatural type or of man -- i.e. the peeling back of the ugly side of human nature that can be, in many senses, more disturbing than an external anthropomorphized representation of the same (take the plot line in Speaks the Nightbird for example). Perhaps evil would be a better word to convey my meaning.