Ask me who my favorite writer is and you’d get different answers at various points of my life. The most common one is Joe R. Lansdale. But there was also Robert A. Heinlein, Richard Matheson, Fredric Brown, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Frederik Pohl, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Robert R. McCammon and Bill Pronzini. However, in contemplation, the one that might well be my all-time favorite is Robert Cormier.
The first Cormier I read wasn’t his debut novel, but it was the first he wrote for young readers. It was The Chocolate War. I found it to be a realistic, frightening and breathtaking piece of fiction. Then I read I am the Cheese and I was hooked. For life.
Robert Cormier did indeed write for young readers. But unlike a lot of the YA fiction available, not only were his novels beautifully written, he never spoke down to his audience. Never patronized and he never bullshitted them. The stories he wrote often dealt with terrible things: Abusive parents. Teenage alcoholism. Anger and destructive behavior from high school students. Violence. Death. Racism and ugly, merciless hate. The malignant things were never there for exploitative or sensational reasons. They represented truisms of society and the perils that awaited the young and innocent.
During the 80’s and 90’s, there was a new Cormier out every year or so. Each time was a special occasion for me. I’d try to save them for holidays or other special occasions. The year 1990 saw the publication of a book that was not meant for teens, but for younger readers. It was called Other Bells for Us to Ring. I was just a bit hesitant, as it appeared to be suited for very young readers, but I got it nonetheless. I saved it for Easter Sunday.
I read Other Bells for Us to Ring in one sitting and it literally changed me. Even though I’m not a religious person at all, this story of faith, miracles and tragedy touched my heart in ways that very few other books have before or since. The only ones that even come close are McCammon’s Boy’s Life, David Martin’s Crazy Love and Don Robertson’s Praise the Human Season. Other Bells for Us to Ring is brilliant and at times funny, but it is also unbearably sad. I was a wreck after reading its last several pages. It took the wind out of me and continues to inspire me and help me to remember the most important things in life.
Robert Cormier passed away on November 2nd, 2000. I was deeply saddened, even if my depression was somewhat assuaged by the posthumous publication of one final novel, the unnerving The Rag and Bone Shop. To the end Cormier was writing uncompromising, scary cautionary tales for young readers.
On this Easter Sunday, seven years after Robert Cormier’s death, I still mourn and I still ache that there will be no more books by him. But he was a devout Catholic and he lived a long life and he produced an unparallelled body of work that continues to astonish, move and maybe even help some souls in this world. And maybe Robert Cormier is now with God, looking down at our sad society and wishing he could have done more for us.