Speaks the Nightbird

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In this independently published novel, Robert R. McCammon seems to ask uncomfortable questions: How far will people go to feel safe, to be loved, to find truth? Will some abandon their humanity and embrace primitive solutions? Will others risk the dangers or the disturbing, maybe inexplicable fear or worse—the mundane monstrosities of ordinary existence?

Readers’ answers arise in a backwoods colony south of Charles Town in South Carolina, where Speaks The Nightbird is set. It’s 1699, the Age of Reason’s outskirts, where enslaving people and burning witches are rationalized, but thievery and murder are not. The protagonist is a legal clerk, Matthew Corbett, who accompanies a traveling judge, Isaac Woodward.

The two are called to the town of Fount Royal to decide the fate of a beautiful widow of Portuguese descent, Rachel, who is accused of witchcraft and despicable acts with Satan himself. Fount Royal’s settlers complicate the matter. Some could benefit from Rachel’s execution and some seem wholesome and hearty; others are peculiar and still others have secrets—perhaps not harmless ones. The judge struggles to remain an impartial magistrate; the clerk is suspicious and eager to solve the deadly riddle.

In the 1980’s a horror writer of substance, style and more, McCammon offered chills and insight in entertaining works such as Baal (1978) and The Wolf’s Hour (1989). Then he wrote Boy’s Life (1991), which proved that he was also an ambitious, bright novelist. Gone South (1992) came out one year later, and then nothing for approximately a decade. But in his presentation of crime and evil, his realistic depiction of rural colonial life, and his effective use of forgotten medical remedies and archaic legal niceties, McCammon shows the timelessness of prejudice and superstition, of greed and hope.

The mystery is fascinating, the dialogue engaging, and McCammon’s lovely word-smithing quite satisfying—the prose at once as refined and rustic, as elegant and utilitarian as his characters. Speaks The Nightbird is an unusual historical suspense yarn with enough touches of the supernatural to satisfy followers of McCammon’s horror books, and the devotion to the writing craft to make skeptics disciples.