The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh
Steven S. Drachman
The American West is already imbued with a near mythological quality in the American imagination and thus the combination of the American West with elements of the fantastic is an infrequent occurrence. Given its infrequency I rather look forward to that special combination of familiar American mythology made strange by the mystical or the macabre. So when author Steven S. Drachman asked me to take a look at his novel The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh I was excited to once again delve into the magic of the American West.
The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh is part time travel tale, part ancient mystery, part romance, and part Western adventure. The title character, Watt O’Hugh III, is an orphan, turned cowboy turned Western Hero turned showman. As the novel opens he is living large as the star of his very own Western show funded by none other than J. P. Morgan. Of course things don’t go smoothly for O’Hugh and he soon finds himself embroiled in a scheme to rescue the love of his life, secure money stolen from J. P. Morgan, and stop the discovery of an ancient Chinese secret from destroying the world.
The time travel elements of The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh are subtle despite being prevalent. Drachman cleverly side-steps the typical difficulties of time travel stories by carefully setting out that Roamers can only observe and never change the outcome of past events. It is a nice touch and gives Watt O’Hugh to useful means to get a change in perspective. Of course there is an exception to this rule; a man who Watt eventually (and reluctantly) becomes an agent of. Bizarrely (and refreshingly) the titular Ghosts are never quite addressed completely. You learn where the Ghosts come from but our narrator (Watt himself) is hardly impartial and while his companions question their presence Watt himself (and thus the novel at whole) never does. I think this is a nice touch; it keeps the magic magical.
The heart of The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh is a love story. The novel opens up with Watt’s last brief, cherished encounter with Lucy Billings. Watt’s rose-tinted view of his last moments with Lucy are cut short by the New York Draft Riots and what follows is a hard-scrabble life that eventually leads to some fame and eventually back to Lucy. That reunion is well worth the journey and is one of the most touching scenes I’ve read in a long time. Lucy is the real impetus behind Watt’s actions and her presence, even when she isn’t physically in the novel, is palpable throughout.
The novel, narrated by a future incarnation of Watt, employs a deft tone of both loss and humor. The novel’s only real stumbling block (a well-documented pet peeve of mine) was a lengthy spat of exposition. Said exposition deals with the ancient Chinese secret which, even after all the exposition, I wasn’t too clear on (I suppose because it is still a secret). The pacing up until that point was pretty solid and it took me a minute or two switch gears. It really is a minor issue and Drachman does his best to break it up a little bit but it remains the only part of the novel that really did not work for me. Really that section was just Drachman tapping lightly on the brakes before smashing the gas pedal straight to the floor. The final chapters fly by and feature some of the funniest (Oscar Wilde’s cameo!) and most over-the-top ridiculous (holes in reality!) scenes of the novel.
The Ghosts of Watt O’Hughis one of the most exciting and original debuts I’ve read in years. While it’s being released independently I wouldn’t be surprised to see it picked up by a major publisher at some point in the future. Tragic, funny, thrilling and something completely different The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh is well worth a look for fans of westerns, fantasy, and adventure. This is only the beginning and I really look forward to seeing where Drachman takes Watt next. You can read a sample of the novel, and find out more about the book, at www.watt-ohugh.com.