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.