Simon and Schuster, 2002, 816 pages
The Carolinas, 1699: The citizens of Fount Royal believe a witch has cursed their town with inexplicable tragedies - and they demand that beautiful widow Rachel Howarth be tried and executed for witchcraft. Presiding over the trial is traveling magistrate Issac Woodward, aided by his astute young clerk, Matthew Corbett. Believing in Rachel's innocence, Matthew will soon confront the true evil at work in Fount Royal....
Robert McCammon is better known as a horror author, and he brings his horror-novelist sensibility to this big, thick historical novel: it's gritty and dark and full of bloodshed and perversion, kind of schlocky and gratuitous in places (like the almost irrelevant subplot about the dude who really, really loves his horse...), and yet entertaining enough to keep me going through the entire massive length of it.
Matthew Corbett, our protagonist, is accompanying his employer, Magistrate Isaac Woodward, to the fledgling town of Fount Royal, a tiny little shithole in the Carolina swamps with aspirations of becoming a port town. It seems there has been a series of murders, arsons, and all sorts of wicked goings on, and since this is the American colonies circa 1699, obviously it must all be the fault of a witch. A witch is duly found: the beautiful widow Rachel Howarth, who makes a convenient scapegoat since she's hot enough to inspire lust in the men and jealousy in the women, her husband is dead, and she's half Portuguese.
After a prelude in which Matthew and the magistrate are almost murdered in their sleep by a sinister innkeeper on the road to Fount Royal, they arrive at the town and discover that the town's founder basically expects them to deliver a guilty verdict right quick so they can get the witch burned and get back to business. Magistrate Woodward, however, actually insists on hearing evidence and allowing the accused to testify, much to everyone's disgust. Meanwhile, Matthew, being a 20-year-old virgin, naturally falls in love with Rachel, becomes convinced of her innocence, and sets about trying to convince the magistrate and the townsfolk, in a world where an accusation is as good as proof. Everyone, even a child, testifies to having seen Rachel Howarth conducting Satanic orgies. While their stories have some holes, none of them seem to have a reason or inclination to lie. Matthew, an incessantly curious and persistent fellow, keeps asking questions while the townsfolk are already picking the stake to burn Rachel on.
Speaks the Nightbird is a historical novel full of colorful if dubious details. McCammon does not gloss over how unclean, uncivilized, and generally gross the 17th century was, especially in a backwater like Carolina. The novel is also pretty engaging as a mystery. Fount Royal of full of shady characters all of whom seem to have mysterious pasts and secondary motives. Matthew goes poking into everyone's business, getting knocked around and at one point jailed and whipped for it, witnesses everything from horse buggery to mesmerism, and eventually uncovers the truth about everything and everyone.
The ending is, while not quite fantastic, skirting the boundaries of plausibility. McCammon brings all sorts of weird plot twists into play, so figuring out the mystery is not something the reader is likely to do ahead of time unless your mind leaps to bizarre explanations, but the conclusion is satisfying.
Verdict: Robert McCammon is not a fantastic writer — he drops the perverse and the implausible all over the place, and his prose borders on purplish at times. But like Swan Song, his big, fat post-apocalyptic novel, Speaks the Nightbird is a big, fat, entertaining book with lots of story, and a good read for fans of slightly schlocky historical fiction.
Also by Robert McCammon: My review of Swan Song.
My complete list of book reviews.