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.