Baal: Exploring early McCammon

SFF book reviews Robert McCammon BaalRobert McCammon The Wolf's Hour, The Hunter From the WoodsBaal by Robert McCammon

The first Robert McCammon book I ever read was Swan Song, a post-apocalyptic horror story about the choices people make when there are no rules. Baal, published in 1978 and reissued by Subterranean Press, explores many of the same themes. I expected this book would have some historical interest for me, as a look back at how a mature writer got his start. To my surprise I found compelling writing and a character I cared about. At the age of twenty-five, when he sold this book, McCammon could write. He could create suspense, and ask the tough questions.

In the case of Baal, the character who engaged me was James Virga, a theology professor in his sixties, who teaches at a college in Boston. Virga compares himself, lightly, to Job in the Old Testament, faithful to God even though bad things have happened to him, the worst being the death of his wife and unborn child in an accident. Virga is a refreshing horror-novel hero: a man of faith who is not bitter toward God.

Virga, however, shows up in the second half of the book and until then the reader follows Baal. In New York City, Mary Kate Blaine, a young, newly married waitress, is raped on the way home from work. The rapist’s hands leave burn marks on her body, as if they were super-heated. The doctors assure Mary Kate and her husband Joe that she will recover. A few months later when Mary Kate announces she is pregnant, neither of them wants to acknowledge the possible paternity of the child. The infant is not normal. Joe intuitively understands the true nature of the child and takes a desperate action, one with tragic consequences.

The story leaps forward nine years to a remote Catholic orphanage in upstate New York, where the boy named Jeffrey Harper Blaine will only answer to the name Baal. Baal’s hatred of the Judeo-Christian god is strong, and so is his power as he recruits disciples from among the children. In a simple, powerful scene, Baal gives each of his child disciples names and brands them with his fingertip while flames dance around them. The word “passed” is not the right word here, but the scene still hums:

His black eyes passed from one to another as they stood in smoking garments, and on their foreheads the fingerprints glowed red. Baal moved into the veil of the forest and the others followed without a backward glance.

The next section starts twenty years later. Baal, now nearly thirty, is well bankrolled and nearly at the peak of his powers. He is faster and stronger than most humans and he can control the minds of others, thousands at a time. Baal and his devoted disciples have started a cult in Kuwait City, spreading a doctrine of personal power at any cost, celebrating orgiastic sex and physical cruelty. James Virga comes looking for a colleague who disappeared while studying the cult. Virga barely survives an encounter with Baal, and escapes into the desert, where he is rescued by an enigmatic man named Michael. Michael has made a study of Baal and has tangled with him before. He tells Virga to go home to Boston, but Virga refuses. His colleague was murdered and he senses that Baal, whose followers are currently looting and burning the city, will usher in an era of evil and unprecedented cruelty if he is not stopped. Michael tells Virga to meet him in Greenland, which is Baal’s next destination.

In the final section, on the arctic ice, Virga learns the truth of Baal, his origins and his power. Baal was once a god, defeated by Yahweh, now reincarnated and determined to bring back his worship, which includes child sacrifice, murder, torture and mutilation. The only thing that weakens him is the Christian cross. Michael has battled him previously, not only in this lifetime.

Virga is a good man, a moral man, but he is also an old man, struggling with the physical hardships of Greenland, hunger, intense physical exertion, and with the illusions poured into his mind by Baal. The question is not whether Virga will find faith in a moment of crisis; it is whether his faith is strong enough to keep him alive.

Virga’s story is compelling and it’s better not to question the shaky mechanics of the plot. Mary Kate is presumably raped by Baal in physical form. If he’s already in human form, why does he need to take the form of a human infant? And more importantly, why does Baal go to Greenland? It is never explained. It kept reminding me of Frankenstein, which I’m sure is McCammon’s intention, but there’s no plot reason given in the book.

The story of Baal, as told by his adversary Michael, changes when it’s convenient, too. At the beginning of the book, Baal is clearly a god. Michael tries demoting him, saying that Satan sent demons to imitate the pagan gods, but Baal’s anger and his grief when he mourns the “cities of great beauty” like Canaan, that Yahweh destroyed, seems real and makes his grudge against the victorious Old Testament god both believable and godlike.

McCammon makes some new writer mistakes, including a couple of awkward point-of-view shifts, and he really cranks up the throttle on the metaphor train:

The boys, chattering and rough-housing like young jungle-fresh monkeys, filed into the lunchroom with a burst of noise…

A paragraph later:

They settled like food bubbling in a pot and watched her as she stood before them, a dark grandmother in her black habit.

In other places, though, like the terrifying orgy in the white pavilion, the writing is authentic and shocking. Sometimes, McCammon places the perfect detail in just the right spot. In his hotel in Kuwait, Virga runs a bath. He notices “a residue of sand in the bottom of the tub.” There is no mechanical reason for sand to have gotten into the pipes, and the sand was not left there from before. This is a symbol of what will be happening to the city in a few short hours.

The brutality of the real world has left the scary parts of Baal in the dust. We’ve seen worse pictures on CNN than the descriptions of Baal’s evil deeds. There is almost an innocence to Baal’s story and his rage. The core story, Virga’s decision at the end of the book, is still a gripping one. I felt like I walked alongside Virga on that last, frigid walk, and I wondered what I would do if I were in his shoes.

Baal — (1978) Publisher: Baal was Robert McCammon’s first novel, a debut that would lead to some of the finest popular fiction of our time. Written at the age of 25 and published as a paperback original in 1978, it has been out of print for years. This deluxe new edition from Subterranean Press will give McCammon’s many readers — both newcomers and longtime fans — the opportunity to trace the development of an extraordinarily talented man. The story begins with a horrific rape on the streets of New York City. Nine months after that violation, a most unusual child is born. His name is Jeffrey Harper Raines, but he quickly assumes his true name — and true purpose — as Baal, a new incarnation of the ancient prince of demons. The narrative recounts his lethal progress through the 20th century, which begins with the destruction of his earthly ‘family.’ From there, Jeffrey/Baal moves to a doomed Catholic orphanage, where he unleashes carnage on an unprecedented scale, then out into the wider world, where he embraces his destiny as the Prophet of the Damned, generating a legacy of chaos, violence, and despair. Baal is very much a young man’s book, raw and brimming with emotion. Listen closely and you’ll hear the voice of a gifted storyteller struggling to be born. In 1980, the career that would encompass Swan Song, Boy’s Life, and The Five still lay waiting several years down the road. This is where it began.

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MARION DEEDS is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by Marion Deeds

4 comments

  1. That’s another book added to the “must read” list. Thanks for a great review, Marion!

  2. Great review, Marion. Have you read many of McCammon’s books?
    Back when I discovered him, my reading habit was; any time I ran across a book by an author I hadn’t read before, I would burn through at least 5 or 6 of said author’s books in a row
    before I got enough. So I’ve read several of his books. My favorite was Gone South.

  3. Greg; I’ve read only a few: Swan Song, Gone South, Boy’s Life and one called Hour of the Wolf, I think (?)–the first of the WWII spy/werewolf stories. Boy’s Life was episodic, but I thought it was magical–on more than one level.

  4. Wolf’s Hour. :) Subterranean Press recently re-released it in an illustrated version. Also I just reviewed The Hunter from the Woods which is short stories about that same character.
    I really liked Swan Song when I read it and I’ve almost read Boy’s Life a few times. ( I have a hard time getting into books when the main character is a kid.)
    There was collection short stories by McCammon called Blue World that was really good. In fact, the music video for the song Kryptonite by 3 Doors Down is almost a direct adaption from one of those stories. (I’ve never heard the video acknowledged as such but it has to be; its almost the exact same story image for image.)

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