The Night Boat was the second novel written, third published, by Robert McCammon (Swan Song, Boy’s Life, Baal, etc) and originally published back in 1980 and recently rereleased by Subterranean Press both in hardcover and ebook. I picked up the ebook verision for my Nook.
The general gist of the novel is that it takes place on the Caribbean island, which served as a haven for British ships during WWII. The story takes place during the 1980s and while on a routine dive, David Moore witnesses the sudden resurfacing of a Nazi submarine that had been half buried under debris at the bottom of the ocean. The submarine not only ressurects the bitter memories of the islanders, but the living dead. The undead Nazi set forth to raid the island for supplies to repair their boat as well as replenish themselves with the flesh of the islanders. It’s up to a rag tag group of islanders to not only stop the undead zombies from ravaging the island’s populace but also prevent them from wreaking havoc on the major shipping lanes and islands in the Caribbean and beyond.
What I liked about this novel is the setting, McCammon did an excellent job not only describing what the island looked like but also its people. I learned their believes, their history, and fears. He didn’t do this through countless pages of exposition, but rather through dialogue that kept the main plot going while giving me the background information throughout the story. I also thought that the way he tied together the Nazi submarine’s attack on the island during WWII and its return to the island in 1980 with voodoo was well done. The reason for the Nazis’ fate wasn’t random, but fit both the islands history and the belief system of the people on the island. If McCammon had never introduced the idea that the sub had attacked during the war or that voodoo was prominent on the island then a Nazi sub full of zombies resurfacing near the island would be very random. I thought that the plot and reasoning behind the Nazi sub was well thought out and executed by McCammon.
Unfortunately, I cannot say I feel the same way about the main characters in the novel. Kip, the island’s chief of police, David Moore, an ex-patriot who owns the island’s sole hotel, and Cheyne, chief of the native Caribs all have interesting back stories. David’s wife and family was lost at sea, Kip has a sense of duty to island and regret/guilt about his family’s ties to voodoo, Cheyne was seriously wounded by the sub’s original attack. Yet none of these characters are really fleshed out too well. I think part of the problem is that McCammon has too many many characters and rather then focusing on one or two and developing them further, he bounces around from character to character. Sometimes he even bounces over to minor characters that simply die within a page or two.
The result of this lack of characterization and development is that I never really bonded with any of the characters. Also the fact that Cheyne doesn’t really appear until its practically the climax of the story makes him feel more like a deus machina more then anything else. It’s like ‘oh wait…here’s a dude with a boat and the gear to destroy this thing…good thing he appeared out of the wood work….’ It’s a bit too easy of a resolution. Also, McCammon brings in a character who had escaped from the Nazi sub when it sank during the war. McCammon uses him for a brief flash back to the war and nothing else. A rather pointless character that had a lot of potential.
Despite all the jumping around from character to character, McCammon never gives us insight into the Nazi zombies, especially their commander. I suppose these undead Nazis aren’t true Romero zombies, since it is suggested they have some lingering humanity and intelligence (they repair the sub, at one point one of them speaks after recognizing the old crew mate) but again McCammon neglects to develop them beyond anything other then creepy face eating ghouls. There’s nothing wrong with face eating ghouls, as long as you’re not on the receiving end, I suppose but I would’ve enjoyed it more if they’d been developed more.
Overall, Night Boat is a fun read, there are some good points to it like I mentioned before, and McCammon is good at descriptive action/gore scenes and cranking up the suspense/tension which you want in a novel like this one. He’s also adept at creating tension between characters through dialogue as well which can make for some great scenes. Especially those between Kip and local voodoo priest, Boniface. But in the end I didn’t care about the main characters, and had a hard time emotionally investing myself in their fate. A horror story can be light and a fun read, but if I have nothing to really invest myself in, why should I read it?