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The Hunter From the Woods by Robert McCammon

When I was growing up, the dominant form of fiction was labelled generically as “adventure” in which clean-cut heroes would fight the mostly good fight and beat the bad guys (badness often prejudged based on their racial characteristics). Now I find myself in a postmodernist world — no peace for the wicked. For those of you who missed modernism, it was one of those rather curious intellectual movements which preferred to reject the realism of the more traditional forms of art. What began life as avant-garde slowly persuaded artists to stop painting what they saw. Instead, we were all eased into expressionism and abstracts. When we got tired of all that, there was no going back to the representational schtick, so we had to become postmodernist, i.e. invent new conceptual ways of describing what would sell, first to the elites whose superior taste was backed up by cash in the bank, and then to the masses when their tastes became educated enough to appreciate the “new” approach to art.

One of the best ways of understanding the process is to follow the trajectory of James Bond. As written by Ian Fleming, he’s a terrible high-class snob much in love with both himself and the material world of casinos, high-powered cars and the leading brands he wears. In a way we forgive the sadism inherent in his behaviour because that’s the way public school boys did act and it was thoroughly British for our suave social elite to defend our sceptered isle from the depredations of foreign villains. The postmodernist Bond offered in Daniel Craig’s performance is very interesting. He’s been repositioned as a middle-class everyman, no longer caring whether his vodka martini is shaken or stirred. Yet once you strip away the class and materialism, all you have left is the amorality, that the ends justify the means. The reconstructed Bond assumes the role of the warrior guarding the gates. As viewers, we step back and let him do what’s necessary to keep us safe. That he may torture Mr White for information is acceptable so long as we don’t have to watch, i.e. after the credits in Casino Royale (2006).

The Hunter From the Woods by Robert McCammon (Subterranean Press, 2011) is a collection of three short stories and three novelettes filling in gaps before, during and after the events described in The Wolf’s Hour which first appeared in 1989. This is a fascinating venture because it deliberately avoids the obvious postmodernist approach. This hero is neither a reconstructed Bond nor a more modern creation like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. We’re deliberately taken back in time to the character basics of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay and, to some extent, the value system demonstrated by the team working for the Duke de Richleau in the early novels by Dennis Wheatley before he was seduced by the supernatural. For Robert McCammon, this is not, you understand, merely a feature of the main action being set in World War II. As Quentin Tarantino demonstrates in Inglourious Basterds (2009), realism is not required. Indeed, in today’s fiction, anything goes whether in this or an alternate reality. Rather Robert McCammon gives us a hero who demonstrates the delicate balance between supreme confidence in his physical abilities and a more innocent desire to “do the right thing”. This is based on what we might term a warrior’s code of honour. Yes, this is a man who will usually kill without a second thought but, if possible, he prefers to respect the courage of his enemies and give them the benefit of the doubt. This is most clearly on display in “The Wolf and the Eagle”. When a German air ace shoots down our hero, they are thrown together in the North African desert. Short of water and threatened by predatory tribesmen who will kill without compunction, they must co-operate to survive. National conflict means nothing when the desert is the enemy. This is a “classic” story that, to younger readers, might seem fresh. Yet it’s a common situation in fiction from H Rider Haggard through Edgar Rice Burroughs to Barry B Longyear’s Enemy Mine, the last adding the human/alien dimension and winning the 1979 Nebula Award and the 1980 Hugo Award for Best Novella. Pointing out a certain lack of originality is not a criticism. It simply sets the bar high. If a contemporary writer is going to mine the past for situations, he’s got to do very well to avoid the plot feeling tired and old.

Robert McCammon, an ex-horror writer but still in dark circumstances

So “The Great White Way” is a wisp of a story showing our young hero learning something about the the complexities of a relationship between a woman and her abusive husband, while “The Man From London” shows model behaviour from a British secret agent in surrendering himself to protect the villagers and their secret quartermaster. “Sea Chase” traps our hero on a relatively helpless cargo vessel at the mercy of a German Q-ship. Fortunately, the crew has read C S Forester’s The African Queen and so knows what to do. And, speaking of the crew, they are a pleasingly motley lot but, when the Nazis start shooting, they put differences to one side and get the job done. “Death of a Hunter” takes us to the twilight years where “foreign” villains are still out for revenge. Which leaves us with “The Room at the Bottom of the Stairs” which has our hero struggling with the impossibility of “love” in the broader scheme of things. Sexual compatibility and the initial lust that carries people through the first period of the relationship is not a firm basis on which to plan the future. When you relocate the action to war-torn Berlin with the Russians advancing ever closer, there’s no chance two people on opposite sides can ever find long-lasting happiness. Everything should be in the now, except the heart often fails to heed that reality. Such stupidity is both the strength and weakness of what it means to be human. Ah, the delicious irony of writing that because, as those of you who have read The Wolf’s Hour will know, our hero is a werewolf. Except, of course, he’s exactly the same as every other classic hero: disarmingly innocent, naturally brave and emotionally vulnerable.

The Hunter From the Woods is wonderful adventure, taking on the challenge of the past and coming out with flying colours. The collection stands alone although you should read The Wolf’s Hour anyway to get the full flavour of the hero. I enjoyed the approach because, in my old age, this is pure nostalgia. Except for “The Room at the Bottom of the Stairs”, of course. In my day, stories featuring sexual activity were only available under very discreet circumstances. What completes the enjoyment is the prose which is simple, direct and rather muscular. This is also in keeping with the period feel, taking us back to times when fiction was less complicated and wanted to feature the adventure with minimum distractions. As to the title of the collection, our hero is given the name Horst Jaeger to use in Germany. Horst is a variation on the Old Saxon name Horsa meaning ‘horse’, and Jäger is the occupational name for a hunter, derived from the verb jagen ‘to hunt’. Near enough, I suppose.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. April 10, 2012 at 8:26 am

    Another book to read. This I think I would enjoy a lot. Thanks for the review!

    • April 10, 2012 at 12:20 pm

      Hi John

      It’s simple, uncomplicated fun and, in the old-fashioned sense, an exciting set of adventure stories with a supernatural twist. Unfortunately, it also went out of print faster than the proverbial off a shovel. A reprint is inevitable. It’s just a matter of waiting. Hopefully, it won’t be too long in coming.

      David

      • April 10, 2012 at 7:17 pm

        I had my friend from the bookstore to see if he could track it down… $100 (including postage) was the cheapest he could find…

        So I gave my friend a list of the books I have, found out the owner of one book is wanting to trade “The Flute and the Stone” for it…

        Problem is, now that someone wants it, I’m reluctant to part with the book.

  2. April 14, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    A trade edition of THE HUNTER FROM THE WOODS is scheduled for publication by Subterranean Press in November 2012.

    Hunter

  3. April 14, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    THE HUNTER FROM THE WOODS is also available now as an ebook.

    Hunter

  1. May 4, 2012 at 4:11 am

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