Let me start by being clear that I am a huge fan of both Robert McCammon and Stephen King. I've read all of their collective works and I love horror as well as many other genres. In both cases there are books I haven’t cared for, though they are the exception. I’ve also been able to see each writer mature over time to become true masters of the written word and it’s been one hell of a ride. Because I’ve loved both since I got into horror in the 80s, I was always irritated by flippant claims that Mr. McCammon copied Mr. King. There is no need to defend Mr. McCammon, but there has been an unfair criticism of his early work that are still making the rounds. The two most often used examples are the vampire novels Salem’s Lot and They Thirst and the apocalyptic novels The Stand and Swan Song.
Let’s first look at the vampire novel. Salem’s Lot and They Thirst were the same in the following ways:
They were vampire novels
They both had a “Master” that directed the mayhem
They both happened in the USA
How they were different:
Salem’s Lot had themes focusing on imbedded evil or evil calling to evil while They Thirst was more apocolyptic
Salem’s Lot was on a small scale with few characters or POVs unlike many others of King’s works while They Thirst was more on the scale of Swan Song including spending a lot of time on the Master’s POV.
The novels aren’t similar in scope or arc. There were very few vampire novels at the time. Before Salem’s Lot, there are only 38 works of fiction dealing with Vampires going back to the 1800s. It was not heavily trod ground. They Thirst came out in 1981, the same years as The Hunger by Whitely Strieber and The Keep by F. Paul Wilson. Only McCammon gets criticism for “copying” King by daring to write a vampire novel 5 years after Salem’s Lot.
As for the apocalyptic novels, The Stand and Swan Song are the same in the following ways:
They were apocalyptic fiction
Both dealt with evil
They both happened in the USA
Both were on a grand scale and involved traveling across the USA
Both had an avatar of evil walking the earth in human form
Both ended with hope
Both are long works
How they are different:
The Stand started with disease while Swan Song started with nuclear war.
The Stand covered approximately two years while Swan Song covered nearly twenty.
The Stand climaxed with a Dues Ex Machina and Swan Song resolved though the decisions made by its characters.
The Stand had two camps where good and evil people were drawn. Swan Song had no camps. It was a world of suffering where the evil avatar worked hard to eliminate hope in any form and people became concentrated version of who they were inside, later to be revealed in physical transformation.
When King released The Stand in 1978, there had been over a hundred fictional works dealing with apocalyptic themes, 17 of which were due to a disease. Though saying The Stand was only about a disease that reduced the worlds population until it collapsed is as much of an oversimplification as claiming that Swan Song was a copy of The Stand because it was a apocalyptic horror story that came out ten years after King’s novel.
But what exactly is the claim? Certainly not plagiarism since neither plot is either original or a copy of any other. Then what is the gripe? That Stephen King came out with his versions of these tropes before Robert McCammon? I fail to see how this translates into one copying the other. Neither man invented these genres and each brought something different to the table with their works.
Neither Salem’s Lot nor They Thirst were the strongest works from either writer, while The Stand and Swan Song are perhaps in the top five books each man has written. The genre was already well-tilled ground when both started their versions, yet each managed to bring something memorable with their efforts.
Stephen King’s first novel was published in 1974, while Robert McCammon was first published in 1978. Mr. King was more prolific in his first ten years and after creative differences with his publishers, Mr. McCammon stopped writing for a decade. Since his return, he has released 5 Matthew Corbett novels, a new collection of short stories about Michael Gallatin (The Wolf’s Hour), The Five, I Travel by Night and soon to be released The Border.
Mr. King just released the novel Revival, where the main character is a musician, and where music plays a big roll in moving the story forward. I won’t give away any spoilers, but only an asshole would claim that he copied Robert McCammon’s novel The Five from three years earlier because it was about musicians.
Both writers are masters of their craft and both have had books that have not been as well received as the bulk of their work. What I recommend is that you read them all, enjoy them all and forget about the claims. They are hay made by small minds at a time when Horror was in its hay day and Mr. King was crowned. King’s accomplishments do not detract from anyone else’s, and I can enjoy other works without performing blasphemy and so can you.