Usher's Passing, Robert McCammon

Thursday, August 02, 2018

I'm one of those readers who feel like I've got a book inside of me. But I'm also one of those readers who doesn't ever try to turn those book ideas into actual, you know, books, because I am intimidated by the certainty of not measuring up to the writing of the authors I love. Sometimes, though, I am reminded that like all human endeavors, the skill of writing evolves and develops over time through practice. It's unrealistic to expect that a person's first attempts at anything will be a masterpiece. Take, for instance, the novel Usher's Passing by one of my favorite authors, Robert McCammon.

Robert McCammon is the rare author that can write effectively and engagingly in a variety of genres. He's written horror, dystopian, and historical mysteries. He reminds me very much of one of my favorite author's, Stephen King, to the point that his novel Swan Song and King's novel The Stand have so many similarities I wondered for a brief moment if McCammon was another pseudonym for King, much like Richard Bachman was. But, like all prolific authors, including my beloved King, he's got a few clunkers (I mean, how did the genius behind The Shining also produce Tommyknockers?). Usher's Passing is not quite a lemon, but neither is it lemonade.

The premise of the book is that the Usher family, made famous by Edgar Alan Poe's story The Fall of the House of Usher, did not in fact die out after the violent passing of Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline. McCammon imagines another brother, one not present as the fateful events that took his siblings' lives unfolded, who continued the family line in their small ancestral North Carolina village. The family fortune, built on the violent death of thousands at the hands of Usher-produced firearms, has led to extravagant wealth but no real happiness for any of the Usher descendants. As the story begins, Rix, one of three children of the latest generation of Ushers, is called home to attend the illness of his father. Rix, a successful horror writer whose life and career have been derailed by the suicide of his wife, wants no part of his family or the blood money they earn through their military contracts. When Rix returns to their estate in the mountains, he is once again drawn into the family intrigue he tried to escape by fleeing to New York. He, like his father, is afflicted by the Usher curse, a mysterious illness that only seems to affect Usher men. The longer he spends at the Usher Estate, the more he feels himself drawn to some dark power present in The Lodge, a hundred-room mansion that was once the home of the Usher's, but was abandoned before Rix's birth. Similarly, a young boy from the tribe of mountain-folk who live outside and above of the Usher estate feels drawn to The Lodge. But unlike Rix, who seems to be responding to some dark stain on his soul, the boy Newell feels drawn to the house to control or defeat the evil that lies within.

To be honest, the plot is so convoluted that it is hard to write a decent summary of it. This novel has all of the elements of a successful horror novel; spooky setting, cursed house, supernatural powers, etc...And there were parts of the novel that were pretty successful. The dysfunctional family dynamics were well written, as were the descriptions of the estate, Lodge, and mountain community. But somehow, despite having all the right ingredients, this novel never quite met its potential. It was too long, for a start. I'm not afraid of doorstop books, but if a book is going to be 400+ pages, I want them all to be integral to the story. I felt like the beginning of the novel took too long to get going. There were also a few places where I felt like McCammon took the easy way out of plot holes, falling back on cliche horror tropes. I finally went back and looked at the publication date, and sure enough, this book was published in the mid-1980s, towards the beginning of McCammon's career. Clearly, while he'd already had commercial success with a handful of over novels before he published Usher's Passing, he was still developing his writing skills. That actually made me enjoy the book a little bit more. I was able to see the flaws as the growing pains of a writer who would eventually go on to write some of my favorite books, most notably Swan Song (1987) and Boy's Life (1991).

All of which means that maybe I don't have to write a masterpiece right out of the gate, when I finally find the time to start writing down the stories in my head. After all, even the greats had to start somewhere.

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