Swan Song (McCammon novel)
Mass Market Paperback cover
|Author||Robert R. McCammon|
|Media type||Print (Mass Market Paperback)|
Swan Song is a 1987 horror novel by American novelist Robert R. McCammon. It is a work of post-apocalyptic fiction describing the aftermath of a nuclear war that provokes an evolution in humankind. Swan Song won the 1987 Bram Stoker award (tied with Misery).
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The President of the United States and his advisors are discussing how the Soviet Union is building up its forces for a nuclear strike. The relationship between the Soviet and American governments has deteriorated badly. Soviet and American ships play cat and mouse in the Atlantic Ocean. With Soviet submarines closing on the east and west coasts, the President caves to pressure from his advisors and orders hunter-killer task forces to engage the vessels while American submarines blockade the Soviet Union.
In New York City, Sister Creep, a homeless woman who suffered a mental breakdown after accidentally causing the death of her daughter in a drunk-driving incident, wanders the city. While she takes shelter in a subway tunnel for the night, the bombs begin to fall. She narrowly escapes with her life.
Aboard the Airborne Command Post, the President is wracked with guilt over his role in the carnage. It is revealed that the war began when an American submarine commander launched a nuclear-armed cruise missile against Soviet submarines, and the Soviets have now launched a full-scale nuclear attack against the United States. Convinced that America as he knows it is dead and gone, the President prepares to input a series of codes into a computer for the activation of an unknown device known only as 'Talons'. Seconds before the activation process can be completed, a burning Greyhound bus, sent flying by the shock waves of the nuclear blasts below, smashes into the aircraft, causing an explosion that sends it hurtling towards the ground.
A wrestler named Josh Hutchins, popularly dubbed "Black Frankenstein", is traveling to a match in Garden City, Kansas, when his vehicle breaks down at a gas station called PawPaw's. Josh meets a nine-year-old girl named Sue Wanda (Swan) and her mother. Swan's mother ran away with Swan when her boyfriend used the family's money to buy beer and struck her in the ensuing argument. The cornfields around the station catch fire as missiles are launched from hidden silos nearby, and Josh realizes that a war has begun. PawPaw is blinded by the flash from a detonating nuclear weapon, and the four of them take shelter in the store's basement.
Roland Croninger is a thirteen-year-old boy who likes to call himself a "King's Knight", a role in a computer game that he invented himself. His parents take him to Blue Dome Mountain in Idaho, a survivalist fallout shelter. Colonel James "Jimbo" Macklin, meanwhile, a Vietnam War veteran, controls the Blue Dome. When the attack begins, an off-course Minuteman missile detonates nearby, and the blast severely damages Blue Dome Mountain. Many people are killed, and Macklin falls into a deep hole.
In New York City, Sister Creep begins to walk around the remains of a New York ravaged by radioactive storms. While walking around, she finds a glass ring with jewels encased in the glass. Seeing it, she picks it up, believing it is important. She is surprised to see an undamaged movie theatre. Entering, she meets "The Man With The Scarlet Eye", who after snatching her crucifix from around her neck, shapeshifts in front of her. She runs away, and the building collapses. Sister is soon met by other survivors. They make their way through the hazardous Holland Tunnel, eventually scrabbling their way to New Jersey.
In Blue Dome Mountain, Roland awakens in the cafeteria and is unable to find his mother and father. He is then picked up by one of Macklin's men who leads Roland to Macklin. Roland, armed with both a butcher knife and lighter, begins to climb down to Macklin, and finds that his hand is stuck in a wall. He is forced to amputate the hand. After Macklin's rescue, the pair must figure out how to break through the area where the food is stored. They find that the entrance to the food stores is blocked by rubble. Macklin oversees as the survivors remove the rubble, which soon collapses on top of the laborers. Simultaneously, Roland is searching through the cafeteria for scraps of food. He is then challenged by one of Colonel Macklin's former men, Schorr. Schorr has gone insane and taken up arms against Macklin, who he believes knew that this would happen and should have prevented it by ensuring the quality of the fallout shelter.
In Kansas, Swan's mother dies, as does PawPaw but not before delivering to Josh a simple commandment: 'Protect the Child'. Soon after, Josh discovers a gopher hole and starts to dig their way out. He notices that there was grass growing where Swan slept. He starts to realize that she has special powers. After that, they reach the surface.
Sister Creep and her party, now in New Jersey, are interrupted by a man named Doyle Halland. He says he was a priest who prayed for the dying and the dead. Doyle keeps looking at Sister's bag, and she shows him the glass ring. While Sister goes on a short excursion with another survivor named Artie, Doyle brutally murders all the other survivors. Sister and her companion return to find Doyle and the corpses. Doyle then says that he had known her all along and had been following her from New York; he was "The Man With the Scarlet Eye." Sister injures Doyle and escapes.
Back in the Blue Dome, Colonel Macklin, Roland, and one of Macklin's soldiers, Warner, sleep in the gym. Soon, Schorr's men start to pound the door while yelling that they need food, but Macklin refuses to help. They start throwing Molotov cocktails and begin to break the door open. As they charge for the food, Roland begins to shoot them. Roland engages in a fight with another survivor who stops fighting long enough to call him by name and say, "Don't you know your own--" before being shot and killed by the young man. A woman then attacks Roland from behind, stealing his gun. She opens fire on him, distracting Schorr while he is fighting Macklin after killing Warner. With Schorr distracted, Macklin is able to kill him. The woman then discharges the gun when she notices food nearby in her crazed, starving state. The fires from the Molotov cocktails threaten to overcome Macklin and Roland who escape the cafeteria, not before Roland hears the woman say "Where'd everybody go? It's hot in here ... so hot. God knows I didn't come all this way to cook in a mine shaft!" something Roland's mother mentioned when they first arrived. In their escape, it appears that the duo will be trapped in the burning compound, but Macklin finds a vent to the outside world. They reach the surface and begin their journey in the new world.
Meanwhile, Josh and Swan reach a town called Sullivan, where they meet Leona Skelton. Her husband, Davy, is on his deathbed, sick from radiation poisoning. Leona reveals that she's a psychic, and had, in her youth, attempted to warn President Kennedy of his pending assassination. As the pair spend more time with Leona, she reads Swan's future with tarot cards. She predicts that she is going to face the Devil. When Davy dies, Josh digs a grave for him. There, Swan befriends a stray terrier, who will follow along on Swan's journey. Afterward, they make their way to Matheson, a small town away from Sullivan. On their way, they stop at the Jaspin's farm. Josh discovers that the people in there were brutally murdered. Meanwhile, Swan goes into the cornfield and finds a horse, which she brings with them.
Sister and Artie begin making their way west. But on the way, they are attacked by wolves and are saved by Paul Thorsen, a divorced former college professor and writer turned mountain man. They follow Paul into the woods to his cabin, where there are more survivors. A few hours in, they keep saying that they should "do it". It turns out that they want to go on the radio, searching for a voice. Sister is shocked and angered at the "game" (as Paul called it) but she discovers that he does it to keep them from giving up and committing suicide. They then decide to leave in Paul's truck, after their supplies of kerosene run out, eventually arriving at a Red Cross hospital set up after the bombs fell after being saved by attacking wolves.
Later, near Salt Lake, Utah, Colonel Macklin and Roland find Shelia Fontana. Roland has sex with her, and they make their way to a camp ruled by a man simply known as "The Fat Man". In Salt Lake, there are two kinds of people: Dirtwarts and Regulars. Dirtwarts country is where Roland and Colonel Macklin live and the Regulars are people with guns, food, water, and other resources. The Fat Man leads them. They go into Regular country and there they meet the Fat Man at his trailer. They have a deal where they get a place and they give him some drugs found in Shelia's bag. Soon after this, Macklin cuts open his amputation wound and emerges himself in the saltwater to heal himself from the infection that had set into his stump. At the same time, the Fat Man calls Roland to his trailer. But, the Fat Man puts the drugs into the soda that Roland drank and attempts to rape him. Roland kills the Fat Man when he burns his face with a kerosene lamp. Soon after, Macklin, Roland, and Shiela take control of the camp.
Josh, Leona, and Swan make it to Matheson, and find a K-Mart with all the lights on and stocked with food and supplies. It turns out to be a trap laid by the escaped prisoners at the nearby hospital for the criminally insane. There, Josh must play a game where he must fight through the market to Swan and Leona, otherwise, they will all be killed. He manages to get through to them, but the insane leader, Lord Alvin, decides to kill them anyway and ends the game sooner than the agreed on time limit. Just then, the terrier, named Killer, that was following them attacks Lord Alvin and they escape, but Leona after being fatally wounded, sacrifices herself to ensure Josh and Swan's survival. Josh, Swan, Mule (the horse they'd found previously, christened by Josh because of his less than handsome features), and Killer find an abandoned circus train and befriend Rusty, an ex-rodeo rider and clown.
Seven years later, people are surviving in small settlements and wandering groups. Some people have been afflicted by tumor-like growths which appear only on the head and grow, merging into a fleshy helmet that limits breathing, speaking and sight. This is commonly called “Job’s Mask”. A nuclear winter has made America a wasteland; the sun has not come out in years, and there is still radiation in the rain. The ground is poisoned by toxic rain and no plants grow.
Macklin and Roland Croninger have forged their people into the “Army of Excellence”. Their goal is to purge the countryside of the disfigured, lead the country in rebuilding, and getting revenge on the Russians. The Army of Excellence, or AOE, is over 4,000 strong and is pushing east, capturing and destroying settlements and seizing stockpiles of food, water, and ammunition. They are joined shortly by an insane Christian carpenter, named Alvin Mangrim, who had previously encountered Josh and Swan and who earns the admiration of Macklin and Croninger by presenting Macklin with a replacement right hand with nails protruding from its palm. Both Macklin and Croninger have Job's Mask; Roland hides it with bandages, while Macklin wears a black leather mask. They hear about another army and decide to decimate it. They torture a man named Brother Timothy and find out that the other army was heading to Warwick Mountain in West Virginia. Brother Timothy claims that God sheltered him for a few days on a mountaintop there and he had a silver key, a phrase, and a black box that could destroy the world. While they do not know precisely what that means, the AOE decide to head to West Virginia. Initially devoted to Macklin, Croninger eventually gains dominance over Macklin, calling himself the real “King”, while Macklin is just a figurehead. Sheila Fontaine is still with the AOE as an RL or “Recreation Lady” providing sexual companionship to the upper echelons of the AOE, including Macklin and Croninger. She is tormented by guilt in the deaths of Rudy and the baby that was killed to provide space for her.
Sister and Paul are still together and have been crisscrossing the midwest, following the visions she sees in the glass ring. Sister has Job's Mask. They have dodged the Man with the Scarlet Eye several times and wander, trading for food and supplies. Sister and Paul are forced to stop at a bar in a town in what used to be Moberly, Missouri and meet Hugh Ryan; a former doctor turned town drunk after having his leg amputated after his settlement was attacked by the Army of Excellence years prior. Sister, being led to a town by the ring, is convinced by Hugh to let him travel with her and Paul much to their chagrin. On their travels, they meet up with a group of boys from an orphanage, led by a 17-year-old boy named Robin Oates. After discovering that Hugh Ryan is a doctor, Robin forces Hugh to perform surgery on one of his men who'd been shot on a previous mission. Making use of the glass ring, that Robin had stolen out of Sister's bag previously, Hugh is able to gain the confidence and physical ability to save the young boy, endearing them to the highwaymen.
Swan, Josh, and Rusty are traveling entertainers. Rusty performs magic and music while Josh wrestles as the “Masked Mephisto” and performs feats of strength. Swan usually hides in the wagon or in a barn when they come to settlements because her Job's Mask is so extensive that she is blind and uses Crybaby as a walking stick to feel her way around. Josh has Job's Mask too, but he hides it under his wrestling mask. They stop at a house in the middle of a stripped orchard. All the trees for a distance around are cut down, but one lone tree is left standing. The couple in the house explain that the one tree was a special apple tree that they just didn’t have the heart to cut down. Swan wanders out to the tree, places her hands on it and is shocked to feel life still in the tree. It calls to her unique ability with plants, which has been neglected due to the lack of living plants in the world. She responds and ‘wakes’ the tree up. The next morning, the tree is covered with blossoms. Everyone is amazed. Swan, Josh, and Rusty decide to continue on to the close-by settlement of Mary's Rest.
The Man with the Scarlet Eye has been searching for Sister and her magical glass ring all this time. He finds out about Swan and decides that she is a threat to him. He hears that she is heading to a place called Mary's Rest and decides to meet her there.
At Mary's Rest, Swan finds the body of a child who was scrabbling in the dirt when he died. Swan finds the corn that the child was trying to plant and decides to honor the child's memory by finishing what the child started; she starts planting the corn using her special ability to encourage the ground to be fertile and the seeds to grow. She hurts her hands digging in the frozen ground and passes out. Josh finds her and carries her back to the house they are staying in. While she is unconscious, the Man with the Scarlet Eye finds her and almost kills her. Rusty interferes and saves her but is fatally burned. Paul and Sister arrive in town. Sister realizes that the ring has been leading her to Swan. When Swan touches the ring, it blazes with light. She envisions a land covered with plants, orchards, fruit, and flowers, and knows this is her life's goal. She loses consciousness again, but this time she is very fevered. Swan's hands heal almost immediately and her Job's Mask breaks up and falls off, revealing a beautiful woman with fiery red hair. Other people's Job's Masks begin falling off, too, and what lies beneath reflects their true souls – most beautiful and strong, but there are some monsters, too. Josh develops a close relationship with a local woman, Glory, and her son Aaron. Despite a prickly start, Swan and Robin begin to fall in love. Aaron figures out how to use the dowsing rod Crybaby and it indicates a source of fresh untainted water. The man with the apple tree drives into town with a truckload of ripe apples and tosses them to a happy crowd. Swan and the residents of Mary's Rest decide to plant an apple orchard to go along with the cornfield, which sprung up almost overnight and is growing vigorously.
The Man with the Scarlet Eye introduces himself as “Friend” to the Army of Excellence and diverts them to Mary's Rest with promises of clean water and Swan's ability to grow food. They attack the town. Many residents, including Paul, are killed, and the AOE take Josh, Sister, Swan, Robin, and others captive. Swan and Sister are brought to Macklin, whose Mask has fallen off to reveal a hideous death's head. Friend attempts to get the location of the glass ring from Sister, but is unable to get past her mental guards. Even under threat of the torture of her friends, Swan refuses to do anything for the AOE. She and Sister are thrown in with Sheila. Robin and Josh are kept as leverage on Swan and the AOE continues towards Warwick Mountain.
Several weeks later, the AOE runs out of supplies and a much reduced army arrives at Warwick Mountain. Croninger's Job's Mask reveals a twisted horror which he continues to hide under bandages. He shifts his allegiance to Friend. Brother Timothy guides Sister, Swan, Friend, Macklin and Croninger to “God’s” bunker. Sister notices God's cufflinks and recognizes him as the former President of the United States, who survived the crash, yet has now gone insane. The bunker is revealed to house "Talons," also known as the Tactical Long Range Nuclear Sanitizer. It is a doomsday weapon which, when activated will launch a final barrage of nuclear weapons from two orbital missile platforms onto the Earth's icecaps. This will cause the Earth's poles to shift while simultaneously flooding the world over with melted ice, completely destroying all life on Earth. The President has been waiting for any indication that the world is going to be ruled by good or evil. Seeing that evil appears to have won, the President activates Talons, much to the delight of Friend, who sees this as an opportunity to destroy the world, and Swan, once and for all. Friend then kills the President to prevent him from deactivating the launch sequence, gloats about the situation, reveals his true face, tells Roland "I have always walked alone" and leaves, presumably to find a place to watch the destruction. Sister fights with Croninger, who shoots her and almost shoots Swan before being attacked by a conscience-stricken Macklin. They take each other down. Swan figures out the deactivation sequence and disarms the launch computer. She and Sister are rescued by Josh and Robin, who broke out of captivity shortly after the AOE arrived at Warwick Mountain.
They leave the bunker, locking it behind them and throwing away the key. Mortally wounded, Sister notices her shadow and begs to be taken where she can see the sun. Josh, Swan, and Robin take her to a clearing where they watch the end of the nuclear winter as the clouds break up and the sun comes out. Sister tells Swan to work fast to wake up the earth. She then dies. Swan, Josh, and Robin bury her and climb down the mountain. They find the AOE in chaos and are there encountered once more by Friend who has taken the form of an AOE officer. Swan gives him the severed replacement hand of Colonel Macklin and says that she forgives him for his actions as without him they would never have found the house Talons and been able to stop worldwide destruction. Enraged, Friend orders the AOE to kill her but upon seeing Macklin's hand, they realize that the Colonel is dead and begin to crowd and attack Friend in a bid to claim the hand for themselves and become the leader of the AOE. Josh, Swan and Robin leave in a truck with Sheila and a few other RL's and soldiers while a pack of wolves descends from the mountain and surrounds the AOE camp. They come across a farmer and his family planting seeds who offer them hospitality. Josh tells Swan that she needs to start her work here, but he is going ahead to Mary's Rest. He arrives to the welcoming arms of Glory and Aaron.
The story ends with humanity struggling back toward civilization, building settlements, and restoring order. The armies of violence become disorganized and dissolve away. News of Swan's ability to wake up the Earth is spread throughout the land almost as if it were legend. Settlements begin to trade again and contact is restored with peoples even as far away as Russia. Humanity now dedicates itself to passing on the most important lesson learned from the nuclear holocaust, "never again [to repeat it]!" Swan and Robin eventually make it to Mary's Rest and have twins named Joshua and Sister. Swan continues her work healing the land, fostering cooperation, and bringing hope to humankind.
The story follows the individual journeys of several major characters, combining them at the climax:
- Sue Wanda Prescott, or Swan, the eponymous young woman who has an empathic ability with plant life, allowing her to accelerate the growth of or resurrect dead plants through physical contact.
- Josh Hutchins, an African-American wrestler stage-named Black Frankenstein, and later the Masked Mephisto. He's Swan's protector and father-figure throughout the book.
- Sister Creep, later simply referred to as "Sister", a formerly deranged "bag lady" who survived a nuclear attack on New York City deep underground in the New York City Subway system. The guardian of the glass ring and late surrogate mother to Swan.
- Colonel Macklin, a survivalist and former U.S. Air Force P.O.W. contracted by investors to oversee a mountain bunker, inside of which he survives during the nuclear attack.
- Roland Croninger, a young boy brought to Macklin's mountain bunker by his parents. Through horrendous circumstances, and while under Macklin's tutelage, Roland transforms from an innocent child into a cold-blooded killer who lives to serve Macklin, and later 'Friend'.
- The Man with the Scarlet Eye, Friend, Doyle Holland, or The Man of Many Faces, an incarnation of demonic evil (allusions to the Devil). He is seen throughout the book as being a creature of chaos. He has the ability to shape-shift, manipulation, mind control, super strength, and the ability to control animals. It's suggested that he caused the nuclear war and other acts of terrorism for his own amusement. He sees the glass ring that Sister carries, and Swan, as cruelties because they bring hope.