A trial for witchcraft proves the tip of an iceberg of intrigues in this absorbing historical mystery, the first newly published novel in 10 years from McCammon (the book was written in the mid-'90s), a bestseller in the 1980s with such supernatural novels in the Stephen King tradition as Usher's Passing
and Baal. Set in 1699 in Fount Royal, a coastal settlement in the colonial Carolinas, this latest unfolds the adventures of magistrate Isaac Woodward and his assistant, Matthew Corbett, who have been summoned to the struggling town to adjudicate in the trial of Rachel Howarth, a young widow accused of deviltry that is blamed for murders, wretched weather and other calamities driving settlers away. Though town leaders press for swift execution, Matthew is persuaded by Rachel's dignity and fortitude that she's innocent. Using skills honed living by his wits as an orphaned child, he pursues inconsistencies in testimony and throwaway clues and uncovers an elaborate plot involving pirate booty, animal magnetism and deadly deceit at the highest levels of town organization. This robust tale is as historically detailed as it is long, and its recreation of an era where superstition held its own with enlightenment is among its strongest achievements. Anachronisms, improbably fortuitous coincidences and private dramas that make Fount Royal seem a pre-Revolutionary Peyton Place lard the plot, but Matthew's race against time to save Rachel with the rudimentary tools to hand makes a compulsively readable yarn. McCammon's loyal fans will find his resurfacing reason to rejoice. (Sept.)
Forecast:Those who enjoyed the author's last three novels (Mine;
Gone South), studies of the human condition that transcended genre labeling, will snap this one up, too. But McCammon also lost readers with these novels because in them he turned away from the horror themes that made his reputation. This latest could well gain him new fans, but it won't win back any horror readers.