The Listener by Robert McCammon science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Listener by Robert McCammon science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Listener by Robert McCammon

Robert McCammon’s The Listener (2018), a finalist for this year’s Locus Award for Best Horror Novel, takes us to New Orleans during the Great Depression. There we meet:

  • Pearly, a good-looking huckster selling over-priced fakely-engraved Bibles to poor and grieving widows
  • Ginger LaFrance, a sexy and completely unscrupulous grifter who is tired of her current partner in crime and ready to choose a new one
  • Donny, Ginger’s violent and crazy nephew
  • Curtis Mayhew, a young black man who earns a decent wage as a redcap with the Union Railroad
  • Orchid, Curtis’s mother, a woman who feels that her health has been declining since the death of her husband years ago and who worries about her sons’ insistence that he can hear voices in his head
  • Nilla and Jack, the brave and privileged children of a wealthy white New Orleans businessman

When Pearly and Ginger, the dastardliest of villains, hatch a plan to kidnap Nilla and Jack, they don’t anticipate that someone could be listening in on their dirty deeds. When Nilla, who is also a “Listener,” reaches out to Curtis for help, the young redcap must try to convince Nilla’s father, the police, and others that he has information they need to save the children. This is difficult not only because of the supernatural element — who’s going to believe that Curtis and Nilla can talk to each other in their minds? — but also because Curtis is a black man in the deep south in 1934. How is he even supposed to approach a wealthy white businessman?

The setting of The Listener is fabulous. Robert McCammon brings depression-era New Orleans to life. I felt the heat and humidity, the economic disparity, and the relentless racism that is a normal part of Curtis’s daily experience. McCammon uses these elements to contribute to the horror plot and the misery that most of the characters endure.

McCammon’s prose is also delightful. It flows effortlessly and is full of powerful emotion, vivid imagery, and interesting insights. Each character’s voice feels true for their social and economic circumstances in the deep south of 1934.

The plot of The Listener is simple, tense, suspenseful, and occasionally gruesome. It is definitely a horror novel, but it doesn’t leave us in the dark. The ending, though tragic, gives us a few sparks of hope. McCammon shows us a truth that seems paradoxical but that most adults have had the opportunity to discover for themselves: sometimes very good things sprout from horrible situations. As one of the characters, a pastor, puts it:

Whatever wreckage you’re facing, however bad it seems, however much it looks like your engine is broken and will never ever run again, the Good Father is a mighty mighty fine mechanic, if you let him be. If you give up that old car the devil’s drove off the cliff, let the Good Father work on it, ‘cause the devil, he done run for the low country.

The Listener is the first novel I’ve read by Robert McCammon and I’m looking forward to reading more. I read this one in audiobook format (Audible Studios). Marc Vietor gives us an absolutely perfect performance.

Published in 2018. A finalist for the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel. 1934. Businesses went under by the hundreds, debt and foreclosures boomed, and breadlines grew in many American cities. In the midst of this misery, some folks explored unscrupulous ways to make money. Angel-faced John Partlow and carnival huckster Ginger LaFrance are among the worst of this lot. Joining together they leave their small time confidence scams behind to attempt an elaborate kidnapping-for-ransom scheme in New Orleans. In a different part of town, Curtis Mayhew, a young black man who works as a redcap for the Union Railroad Station, has a reputation for mending quarrels and misunderstandings among his friends. What those friends don’t know is that Curtis has a special talent for listening… and he can sometimes hear things that aren’t spoken aloud. One day, Curtis Mayhew’s special talent allows him to overhear a child’s cry for help (THIS MAN IN THE CAR HE’S GOT A GUN), which draws him into the dangerous world of Partlow and LaFrance. This gritty depression-era crime thriller is a complex tale enriched by powerfully observed social commentary and hints of the supernatural, and it represents Robert McCammon writing at the very top of his game.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.