Onyx reviews: Speaks the Nightbird
by Robert R. McCammon
After a decade of silence, Robert R. McCammon returns with a historical
mystery. In the 1980s, McCammon was a prominent voice in horror. Most of his
novels had a historical tinge to them. In the early part of the 1990s, his books
became more mainstream and he encountered difficulties with publishers who had
him pigeon-holed as a genre writer. He wrote two novels that editors didn't like
because they were too much of a departure from his previous material. An editor
suggested major changes McCammon couldn't agree to. In frustration, he retired
from publishing and stopped writing.
Whoever decided that Speaks the Nightbird was different from McCammon's previous
material couldn't have been familiar with his work. Though it is set in Colonial
America over three hundred years ago, Nightbird has much in common with Boy's
Life, one of his most popular novels: it is a coming-of-age story of sorts.
Matthew Corbett is scrivener-apprentice to Isaac Woodward, a magistrate in the
Carolina Colony. They travel to Fount Royal, the southernmost outpost in 1699,
where Rachel Howarth stands accused of killing a clergyman and her husband, and
also of being a witch.
The combination of a wet spring—with its associated diseases—and the
presence of a witch spell doom for Fount Royal unless justice can be served.
Residents are fleeing like rats from a sinking ship and Mayor Bidwell believes
Rachel's execution—after due process, of course—is the only thing that can
save his failing city.
McCammon, through carefully crafted language and unobtrusive application of his
extensive research, does a remarkable job of conjuring the mood and feeling of
the colonial era. Living conditions are coarse and rough, rats abound, bleeding
is acceptable medical practice and chamber pots are part of life. Everyone has
If readers accept that Rachel isn't a witch, and that no supernatural agent is
at work here—and McCammon pushes them strongly in this direction through
Matthew's eyes early in the book—then Nightbird becomes a murder mystery.
Someone killed Reverend Grove and Daniel Howarth in cold blood, mutilating them
to make it appear they were killed by a demon. But what, then, is the
explanation for several reliable witnesses who swear convincingly that they saw
Rachel consorting with devils? And what is the killer's motive for framing this
exotic Portuguese beauty?
The relationship between Woodward and Matthew is reminiscent of William of
Baskerville and his apprentice Adso from The Name of the Rose, although in this
case the student becomes the stronger personality. Matthew steps from beneath
the wings of his mentor to become Rachel's champion in spite of overwhelming
pressure to comply. He is curious by nature; his mind is not clouded by
tradition. Woodward is of the old school. He is also not at his best -- he lost
his luxurious clothing on the voyage and the dank climate weakens him to the
point where he can barely speak, let alone conduct a trial.
Though some of the supporting cast tends to blend together, colorful characters
like Linch the rat-catcher, Hazelton the blacksmith and traveling preacher
Exodus Jerusalem liven the tale. At over 670 pages, Nightbird seems like it
might be overly long, but the book does not plod. McCammon successfully
maintains the period tone and diction through the entire span of the novel
without letting it impede the story. A welcome return after a ten-year absence
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