Every so often I lament the difficulty of finding what I consider good horror and solicit suggestions. Almost every time I do, someone brings up Robert McCammon’s “Boy’s Life” ($8.99, Pocket Books).
I finally got around to picking it up, and I disagree. Mainly because I’d really hate to classify this book as “horror.” Yes, there are horrific things in it. There are monsters and ghosts, there’s magic, there’s even a dinosaur. But there’s so much more than any one genre designation can hold.
The story centers around Cory Mackenson, a young boy growing up in the 1960s in Zephyr, Alabama. One early morning, as he rides along on his father’s milk delivery route, his life changes. A car rockets across the dark road, barely missing the milk truck, and plummets into the deep waters of Saxon’s Lake.
Cory’s father dives in to try to save the driver, only to find that the man has been brutally murdered – beaten, choked with piano wire and chained to the steering wheel to keep his body from surfacing. The only clue to go on is a tattoo of a skull with wings on the man’s arm and a bright green feather that Cory found at the scene of the crime and only he knows about.
As his father grapples with the demons of coming face to face with murder and the victim still calling to him from the bottom of the lake for justice, Cory has to deal with making his own way in the world, including school, friends and bullies. But he, too, soon begins to have strange dreams.
An encounter with the local river monster during a flood puts him in the good graces of The Lady, the spiritual leader of the segregated black community in neighboring Bruton. She may be the only person who can help Cory and his father cope with their problems.
There were times, I admit, that I wondered if McCammon were trying to weave too many threads in this book. At its heart, “Boy’s Life” is a coming-of-age tale. It’s also a murder mystery, a horror story with multiple angles, a social commentary on segregation, even a bit of a fantasy. Almost any of the story lines would have been enough to build a book on, but in the end, I think they all come together to build a much richer story than any one on its own.
Much like Stephen King’s “It,” “Boy’s Life” was a book that took me back a lot of years. In all honesty, I would love to have the same experience with this book that I had with “It” – the ability to read it as a teen, when I was still close to Cory’s age, and then again as an adult, to see how my perception changed. Sadly, I don’t, but I can guess.
The younger me probably would have thrilled at the action sequences and felt a sharp nostalgia, and perhaps a small pang of loss at the ending of those carefree days sailing along on my own bike with friends. The 40-year-old me misses those things, too, in reading “Boy’s Life,” but there’s a bigger message, one that the invincible teenager probably wouldn’t have gotten – a somber reminder of our own mortality and that of those around us. An encouragement, perhaps, to do the things we need to do today because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
Ultimately, “Boy’s Life” is simply what the title states – a story about life. There are monsters, as I mentioned before, but also a reminder that most monsters don’t come with sharp teeth and claws, but rather in often-friendly disguises, and most horrors are not created by things that crawl up out of the swamp. That’s balanced by a show of exactly what the power of the human spirit, compassion and perseverance can accomplish.