Book – Swan Song (1987)
Author – Robert McCammon
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. Several months earlier, the War in Afghanistan ended with the Soviets launching mustard gas and other nerve agents at Kabul. India and Pakistan destroy each other in a nuclear war, Iran launches Soviet-supplied nuclear weapons at Iraq, and 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. 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 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. While trapped, he is reminded of his experiences in Vietnam.
In New York City, Sister Creep begins to walk around the remains of a New York ravaged by radioactive thunderstorms and tornadoes. 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 building. Entering, she meets “The Man With The Scarlet Eye”. 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. Macklin is at the bottom of a deep hole. Roland, armed with both a butcher knife and lighter, begins to climb down to Macklin, and finds that his arm is stuck in a wall. He is forced to amputate the arm, and cauterize it with a smoldering portion of desk found in the room. 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. Roland slices Schorr’s left cheek, and kills his two followers.
In Kansas, Swan’s mother dies, as does PawPaw. 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 start to head for Pittsburgh, but 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 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 and one of them grabs his neck. Unknown to Roland the man was his father, and Roland blows off his entire head. A woman steals Roland’s gun, but Macklin finds a vent to the outside world. While climbing through the vents, Roland realizes that the woman who stole his weapon was his mother, but he continues on. They reach the surface and begin to walk.
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 tells the future with globes and tarot cards, and after Josh falls asleep, she reads Swan’s 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. Afterwards, 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, a 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 slaps Paul saying that he gets a sick pleasure from it, but he says it keeps them from going crazy. They then decide to leave in Paul’s truck, eventually arriving at a Red Cross hospital set up in the aftermath of the attack.
Near Salt Lake, Utah, Colonel Macklin and Roland find Shelia Fontana. She has no burn marks on her. Roland has sex with her, and they make their way toward 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. The Fat Man’s men come to get the couple out. But, one of the men kills the couple’s baby when they refuse to go. Soon after this, Macklin soaks his arm in the Salt Lake for it to heal. 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 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 by the insane people from a nearby asylum. There, Josh must play a game where he must fight through the market to Swan and Leona. He manages to get through to them, but the insane leader decides to kill Swan. Just then, a terrier that was following them attacks him and they escape, but Leona sacrifices herself to allow time for Josh and Swan to escape.
Josh, Swan, Mule, and the Terrier named 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 and hide it under bandages. They hear about another army and 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 her visions. Sister has Job’s Mask. They have dodged the Man with the Scarlet Eye several times and wander, trading for food and supplies. They meet up with a group of boys from an orphanage, led by a 17-year-old boy named Robin Oakes. A doctor uses one of the spikes from the glass ring to successfully operate on Robin’s younger brother. The ring eventually leads the group to a town called Mary’s Rest.
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.