Blackwater Lights

d96cc07cabda0c659694e7a6841434d414f4141A surprisingly enjoyable novel. While I expected a Lovecraftian story, it is Lovecraftian only in theme and not in any explicit allusions.

I got it for review from the publisher about six months ago. Perhaps inconvenient for Mr. Hughes, but I don’t get paid for these reviews, so, if you don’t give a hard deadline, a title is reviewed when I get around to it.

And I’m not going to be tyrannized by the new or be one of those reviewers who laments they never get to go back and read anything old. Besides, in the age of the long tail, I suspect a book can survive better without the immediate oxygen of a review upon release — providing, of course, it gets reviewed and noticed sometime.

Review of Blackwater Lights by Michael M. Hughes, 2013.

Blackwater, West Virginia’s strange orange lights in the sky aren’t the only forteana phenomena in Hughes’ first novel. There will be a lot more as well as some Lovecraftish bits.

And Hughes’ is not the first author to start a story with the device of a man getting a pleading call from a childhood friend to visit him in some rural backwater. But, from the moment Ray Simon arrives in town from Baltimore, things are weird. His friend Kevin, an internet porn millionaire, isn’t home. A naked girl shows up pleading for sex before being taken away by a creepy sheriff. And then Ray sees the Blackwater Lights.

In town, everyone takes an interest in Ray. There’s Lily, seductive associate of the town’s other millionaire, Crawford. There’s Denny, local historian and fortean blogger. There’s a fortune telling businesswoman. There’s Micah, preacher of a secretive church nearby. They all want Ray and all think he’s special – though they won’t tell him why. And Kevin is still gone.

Finally, there’s harried waitress Ellen and her son William. Hughes’ deftness with characterization makes the stock man-in-danger- falls-in-love plot device actually seem believable. Hughes, never deviating from looking at the story through Ray’s eyes, cranks up the suspense and weirdness beyond levels I expected.

I found the climax just a bit weak though Hughes sets the ground for it. The ending leaves a room for a sequel but does not require one.

I may have started this novel out of a bit of sense of duty, but Hughes’ pushed me through his story with danger and sinister menace and left me glad I picked it up.

Afterthoughts with Spoilers

If the reference to forteana puzzles you, I can only suggest you read the wiki entry on Mr. Fort. I’ve even reviewed biographies of him, one by science fiction author Damon Knight, the other by Jim Steinmeyer.  The Fortean Times is a magazine not only entertaining but also weirdly informative about the strangeness that seven billion people get up to.

Strange lights in the sky aren’t the only thing of a fortean nature in this book. We have references to tarot reading, ley lines, psychedelic drugs, mind control, shamanism, and various conspiracies of the rich and powerful. That includes not only specific references to the MKULTRA program, an effort by the CIA to develop mind control techniques useful for creating unconscious secret agents, but a fictional (as far as I know) remote viewing program called MIRROR, and Crawford’s conspiracy to supply torture victims and sex slaves to rich, powerful, and bored sociopaths.

The two weaknesses I thought present in the book were the somewhat clichéd attack by Kevin at the climax of the story. Granted, his attack on Crawford and the entity possessing him was foreshadowed by vague intimations of dissension in the Crawford organization, it seemed a bit like the clichéd rescue Ray realizes isn’t going to happen.

The second problem I had is either an unconscious cliché used by Hughes or some distasteful ethnomasochism. I’m talking about the racial identities of the story’s two competing organizations. Mysterious Micah’s organization is run by a black man of the type that Morgan Freeman has made a career out of playing. I refer to the “Numinous Negro” always counterpointed against benighted or evil whites. And Crawford’s organization, with the exception of one Middle-Eastern type, is all white. Micah has a black bodyguard and Asians and, it must be admitted, a white woman.

Title and author/editor indexes exist for more reviews of fantastic fiction.

6 thoughts on “Blackwater Lights

  1. First, thank you for the nice review and I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I don’t normally respond to reviews, but I think you have raised an interesting point about the “magic negro” trope and I think it could start an interesting discussion. I was most definitely aware of that cliché when I was writing the book, as I am very conscious of it when reading or watching movies (I particularly dislike when movies about the civil rights era, like Mississippi Burning, utilize white heroes to make the story palatable for a white audience).

    I used black heroes in the book, yes. I am a white writer. And the main black character, Micah, is *literally* “magical.” So my question (not just to you, but to anyone) is how can one write about black protagonists (especially if they are heroic in any sense) without being accused of playing into the trope?

    As for the cult, it was also an intentional decision to make them all white, male (with the exception of Lily) with one Arabic man. Because those are the individuals who make up the über-elites I believed would make up such a high-rolling, international clique. And it was also a conscious decision to have a racially mixed group going up against a cult of those elites, as a mirror of how power in our world is structured.

    So thank you for bringing this issue up, as it hasn’t been addressed in any other interviews and I suspected it might arise. I might even write a blog post about it. And I’m glad to have found your blog and have enjoyed reading several other reviews.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Mr. Hughes.

      Actually hearing from an author is a good reminder that a reviewer should not only try to be honest in their assessments, but that they have a responsibility to not be gratuitously mean or dishonest about what they review. If one must reject someone’s creative labor, it can certainly be done politely.

      And I’m certainly not rejecting your novel. Quite the opposite.

      I was surprised that you gave a lot of conscious thought about the “magic negro” matter. Frankly, I suspect most writers and screenwriters who use it do so without a thought at all or to quite consciously push political perceptions in a certain direction.

      So, on to the issues you raised.

      In regards to clichés in general — any type of clichés, reader and critic response varies in ways that come down to experience, personality, and just sheer taste. At every point in a reader’s life, a cliché will seem new to them because they are encountering it the first time. Whether the cliché becomes odious to the reader, depends on their personality, their level of exposure to the cliché, and the appeal of that idea. That appeal will, in turn, depend on their life experiences, how realistic the cliché seems, personality elements influencing political persuasion and need for novelty, and, finally, just how much “fun” the cliché. A great deal of this is subjective and intractable to reason. (And whether people should be “reasoned” out of their tastes is another large discussion.)

      To use some personal examples, I grew quickly tired of the “Amazon warrior babe” so beloved in many action movies. On the other hand, I like Lovecraftian fiction which is regarded by some as just working out variations on certain clichés: censored knowledge, blasphemous tomes, things man should not know, and entities scratching at the rim of the universe. Others quickly grow tired of those elements and certainly don’t want to examine minute variations of them.

      Now I don’t like the “magic negro” device. In historical stories, it’s often inaccurate. In contemporary stories, it’s a often a form of affirmative action with blacks way over represented in certain roles compared to reality. (By “reality”, I’m restricting myself to just U.S. society.) Now, of course, there are at least two jpolitical arguments as to why blacks have the positions they do in our society. It doesn’t seem that either view is served by the “magic negro”. Rather, it grates on me as political propagandizing.

      However … as you point out, you are dealing with a literally magic negro. You wanted that character black, so I have no solution for the problem you raise. So you might as well be true to your vision. For me, that element, even now realizing we are dealing with a literalized metaphor, weakened the story a bit. Another reader may not notice. A third may notice and approve. As the old saying goes, you can’t please all the people all the time.

      The nature of Crawford’s cult is interesting. You could argue that you should have some Asians since they are now in the global rich and powerful. Realistically, though, it’s easier to imagine whites and a sole Arab operating in America than a group of Chinese businessman with the same interests. And Crawford’s group, now that I think about it, avoids another cliché I don’t like: the multi-racial criminal enterprise. If you check out the news, criminal enterprises of whatever scale almost always involve ethnically or homogenous groups for reasons of increased trust in the group.

      I think the interesting converse of your quandary about Micah’s race and the context he operates in is to ponder the reaction you would get if you made some of Crawford’s group explicitly Jewish. Yes, Jews do make up a disproportionate amount of the world’s financial elite (though less than they use to)so they would, so to speak, be in Crawford’s target market. Would you have been ok to portray a Jewish character engaged in something a bit reminiscent of the old “blood libel” charges? (And, no, I have absolutely no belief this was some plot element cryptically hinted at by you.)

      So, in the world we live in where races don’t get along and haven’t gotten along, an author, when writing in a contemporary setting, and even an historical setting, may feel under some social, moral, and political pressure to stay between the lines. Some ethnic and racial groups should be built up and some torn down. The identity of each category to be determined by social forces.

      Again, I hasten to add I’m not saying you wrote this novel, consciously or unconsciously, with those pressures in mind. But readers may note them. And, to be honest, I as a reader notice in some circumstances. When I do, am I projecting my politics on to the text? Does it matter if I am? Will if somehow affect the author’s career? Only if I feel the need to take some positive or negative action and talk enough people in to joining me.

      To further complicate things, writers deal with individual characters, often with individual characters who are in some way exceptional. That exceptionality may be in direct contrast to the groups, of whatever nature, they belong to and how they are or how they are perceived. At what point should a writer, should a reader see a character as not an individual but a representative of some group? Writers of political stories, satirical stories, stories of adventure, stories of just about any kind may want to do both.

      I think all a writer can do in this age censorship via economic pressure directed by social media is to decide what their vision is and, if it can bring them trouble, decide how honest they want to be.

      Life is short. Writing is hard work and the pay will probably be low. Do you really what to censor your own vision?

      Those are my thoughts. But I’m not a fiction writer or, indeed, a paid writer of any sort.

      Again, the “magic negro” cliché was a bit of an unwelcome distraction for me here though not as much as it has been in other stories. I certainly still liked the novel and look forward to more stories from you. I’m particularly hoping you continue with the Fortean elements.

      And now for something mostly unrelated to the above … I forgot to mention in the review that the Crawford cult reminded me in particular of some literature handed out here in Minnesota a few years ago by, as I recall, Lyndon LaRouche supporters. They alleged a group of wealthy business elite and politicians trafficking in young children as sex slaves, their minds controlled so they couldn’t testify in court. I appreciated you throwing something similar in as another element in the menaces of the Crawford organization. (And, no, I didn’t take the charges in that case seriously)

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful, in-depth reply. I agree with your points about the subjectivity of clichés and we all have our stable of clichés we enjoy and that we dislike.

        About the magic negro and the cult—I did structure the battle between the two magical “lodges” as metaphorical of global power structures. It made sense (to me) for the good guys to be racially representative of the larger global demographic, and the magic they used originated in folk/shamanic cultures (as opposed to the more ceremonial, ritualized magic of the elites). I happen to be a bit of a specialist in the history of the occult, so this mirrors what I see as a more elitist adoption of western magic (epitomized in the Golden Dawn (1859) and its many offshoots) and a current of racism that emerged in Theosophy and ultimately in the Nazi occult mythology.

        And good points about censorship—I would hope I would never censor my vision. There are people who might say I should never write about main characters who are black, for instance, because I’m a white guy. I find that absurd. Nor would I change my stories to reflect any kind of prevailing cultural trends. That said, I have acquiesced to editors when they have said something I’ve written has crossed a particular line. In one case, it was the implication that bad things were being done to children, and the editor believed it would adversely affect readership. There is always a balance between artistic vision and the marketplace, and since I *do* like to profit from all the time I put into writing I am willing to adjust my vision. But I do so very cautiously.

        And the sequel is set to come out in October, so I hope you will check it out and weigh in with another review. The cosmology and mythology is considerably expanded, so I would love to hear your take on it, and I hope I will.

        Thanks again for reading and taking the time to write the review.

      2. Mr. Hughes,

        I like the sound of your magic conflict and the idea behind it. I look forward to a fictional look at all those books I see in The Fortean Times’ book reviews but seldom get around to reading.

        I’ll pass the news on to some of the people on LibraryThing. Some seem to be well read in occult scholarship and may be interested.

        Again, thanks again for responding to the review. I know there are a lot of good reasons for authors not to do so, so I’m glad you did.

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