So a small caveat before this review: I don’t consider cliches a bad thing necessarily, and even predictability in a story isn’t that bad. So I won’t be taking points off for those. That being said, if you’ve read one post-apocalyptic horror, you’ve read ’em all. Particularly, if you’ve read one ’80s post-apocalyptic horror, you’ve read ’em all. And really particularly, if you’ve read The Stand, you’ve read ’em all. So with that, let’s talk about Robert McCammon’s Swan Song.
Swan Song is a 1987 post-apocalyptic horror novel set during and in the aftermath of a nuclear war between America and Russia. Also, it’s not so much a “war” as it is a combined nuclear strike. Basically, the two countries say “fuck the world” and lob every single nuke they have at one another, causing—as you would guess—unparalleled destruction and nuclear winter. Guess both countries forgot about that whole “mutually assured destruction” thing.
The first 150 or so pages of the novel follow the main cast of characters in the final few hours before the nuclear strikes wipe everything out, as well as the American president in the hours before the nukes are launched. This is probably my favorite part of the whole book as you get to see all the various people manipulating him and trying to get him to strike at the Commie bastards before they strike first and the no-win scenario he’s presented with that makes everything boil over. It all works out great. At the end of this section, the president is taken aboard Air Force One and circles above the destruction, watching as the country burns. He decides to use something called “Talons,” which can only be activated by him and is carried in a briefcase handcuffed to a guy’s wrist. Just before he can use it, however, the airplane is hit by debris and goes down.
The rest of the characters are:
Swan: A young girl who is very good at gardening and seems to be able to communicate with plants and animals.
Josh Hutchins: A giant man with a heart of gold who wrestles under the name “Black Frankenstein”
Roland Croninger: A…very disturbed little shithead who’s moving into an underground bunker built inside of a mountain with his parents. Colonel Macklin: A war hero who ostensibly runs the underground bunker but is really just a figurehead and celebrity spokesman designed to get people to buy timeshares in the bunker. He is constantly talking to a being called the Shadow Soldier who helps him survive by being a dick, basically.
Sister Creep: A homeless woman who lost her mind after some traumatic event in her past, which is very clearly the death of her daughter despite the book taking forever to reveal this.
The Man with the Scarlet Eye: Basically Randall Flagg. For those of you who haven’t read The Stand, this means he’s a gleeful villain who revels in destruction for destruction’s sake and has supernatural powers.
Now, I could give you a detailed breakdown of the plot, buuuuut the book is 960 pages long, so I don’t think I will. What you need to know is Swan has the power to help plants grow, and The Man with the Scarlet Eye wants to kill her because of this. Colonel Macklin grooms Roland into an even bigger, now-murderous shithead, and they take control of an army that cropped up in the aftermath of destruction. Swan and Josh meet Sister Creep (who regained her sanity after the nukes and now just goes by Sister), and Swan realizes it’s her destiny to grow a nationwide garden and bring the world back together. So yeah, it’s basically The Stand but with different powers.
This is not a bad thing. I know all of that up there sounds pretty critical, but I actually liked this book. Robert McCammon is a good writer, even when the story he’s telling is predictable. He’s good at cutting to the emotion of characters and writing in language that evokes those emotions in the reader. And something about this book I think is actually better than The Stand is the pacing. I flew through the book when I was really able to sit down and read, and the way he juggles all the POVs makes it difficult to want to put the book down. It is a big time investment though, no matter how fast you read it, which is why it’s difficult for me to fully recommend it. In the end, it’s just like every other post-apocalyptic book: shit happens, most of the world dies, the survivors band together in groups of obvious good guys and obvious bad guys, the bad guys are bad for reasons that are basically “might as well be bad and get powerful cus that worked out so well last time,” and the good guys kill the bad guys despite all the death that happened before.
Robert McCammon is pretty well known in horror circles but not as well known outside of them, which is a shame. The man knows his way around a word processor. I would recommend a few of his other works before reading this one. In particular, I would recommend Boy’s Life and Speaks the Nightbird, and if you like those ones, then come back to Swan Song. Even if you’ve read The Stand.
All in all, I’d give this book a Big Red Eye/10.
Recommended if you just can’t get enough of that sweet post-apocalyptic jive.