Written by: James Keen
“It was the stuff of nightmares, this death in life.” – ‘I Travel By Night’. Robert McCammon.
Back in the late 1980’s Robert McCammon published ‘The Wolf’s Hour’, a period piece that involved elements of lycanthropic fable set against the grim backdrop of the Second World War. A spy novel replete with blood and supernaturally instigated hair growth that this reviewer didn’t much care for, finding the horror elements to be entirely unnecessary to the otherwise intriguing plot and implemented in a rather clunky manner. Perhaps excising the werewolf component might have greatly benefited a novel that had a rich and rewarding story to tell anyhow. Instead an initially compelling conceit was arguably hamstrung by an awkwardly inserted supernatural narrative thread. ‘I Travel By Night’ appears to be McCammon’s attempt to take another genre stalwart – this time the vampire- set his tale in a post American Civil War era and have his toothy protagonist, one Trevor Lawson, set up as a “gunslinger and an adventurer who handled all matters for a price”, a ‘child of the night’ who sports business cards emblazoned with the curious legend, “I Travel By Night.” The results of this particular combination of period piece/horror story this time around proves to be arguably more effective than Gallatin’s hairy Bond-type escapades.
An entertaining horror novella and a welcome return to a genre that served to establish his formidable reputation as one of the leading exponents of horror fiction, this is, as you would expect from a writer of McCammon’s caliber a well-written, moody piece that moves from the gin-soaked bars of New Orleans to the wrecked township of ‘Nocturne’. Employed to rescue the relative of a wealthy politician who has been taken hostage by a group known as the ‘Dark Society’, a shadowy enclave demanding a specific and biblically significant number of gold coins, whose only other stipulation is that it must be Lawson, and no other, who must endeavor to broker the trade.
McCammon sketches out Lawson’s history with economy but not a great deal of flair. The character’s vampiric origins echo other examples the most ardent followers of the genre will have come across before, in particular Lawson’s ‘device’ that allows him in avoiding the slaughter of innocents has its antecedent in George R.R.Martin’s creatures of the night novel ‘Fevre Dream’. Diverting though it is, it’s fairly predictable and it’s to the author’s credit that he knows well enough not to allow his narrative to outstay its welcome by avoiding a bloated page count. One of the more enjoyable aspects of ‘I Travel By Night’ is McCammon’s knack for crisp and incisive description and it is evident throughout. One character is described as “a thin lumberjack with maybe six teeth in his head and black hair that had been cut under a soup bowl” for example, but the energy in his narrative is often undercut by risible lines of dialog that hints at a writer enamored of late fifties American Western cinema, to wit, ‘We don’t want no trouble here, Mister,’. Along with the repetitive references as to the questionable ‘sanity’ of his lead and while sporting an admittedly atmospheric climax, it’s invariably a rather mechanical reading experience with minimal substance.
For genre fans who like their vampires old fashioned and their tales briskly told, this is certainly an attractively mounted story, but for those weary of vampires in general there’s very little here that is likely to enthrall. Engagingly told but frankly near anaemic in terms of terror or suspense, this, hopefully, is merely a taster of what might prove to be something more substantial to come from one of the genre’s best writers, as the author certainly leaves the door open for a follow-up.