NOTE: This book is available at the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino and at all fine book outlets
Paul McHugh’s latest novel, Came A Horseman, is set on the north coast of California. This makes the novel of particular interest to us at Think in the Morning as that has been our stomping ground for the past fifty years. [For a few comments on some other good books focused on the same locale click HERE.] The book is a dystopian sci-fi western mystery thriller infused with just enough religion and philosophy to fire up our ancient neurons.
The story takes place in the aftermath of:
“… a giant solar flare. What scientists used to call a coronal mass ejection, I mean, back when we had scientists. Biggest such event in recorded history. Fried just about every microchip on earth, blew up transformers, burned down power stations. Really thumped our civilization reset button. Yanked us backward more than a century. Maybe two.”
Civilization as we know it has disappeared, replaced by groups of marauding bandits, cult enclaves led by religious fanatics or Trumpian like military narcissists, and a few remnants of small town safe havens that have managed to hold on by repurposing the detritus left over after the Flare.
The hero, Kyle Skander, washes up on a beach along the north coast after a giant wave separates him from the kayak he is using to return to his wife, Luz Maria, and their home in Arcata. He soon finds himself a hostage in the religious enclave of Elysian where he becomes the prime suspect in the murder of Rebecca, a “beloved younger Sayer.” A “Sayer” is a bit like the ancient Greek oracles. Rebecca’s older sister Ruth, bespectacled with a black eye patch covering a lost eye, is the current Sayer for the “Readers of the Holy Writ. Or RHW or the Writ Readers, for short.” These Writ Readers are the people who inhabit Elysian, “a new Canaan” their “reward for keeping among the true faithful.”
The only way Kyle can free himself is to find the real murderer. This becomes his assigned task. In the process of exploring Elysian, he discovers “The Tribe”. The Elysians “farm … and create (the) sacred refuge that is Elysian. The Tribe hunts the forest and guards the Pale, which is the outer border of (the) joined territories.”
Beyond the Pale is, as one would expect, danger, and it strikes in the form of the fierce cult leader Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Reginald Cooper who invades Elysian to reclaim the territory that “was always going to be (his) second compound”—land “he’d bought … from a bankrupt timber company.”
Kyle ultimately joins with the Elysians and The Tribe in an attempt to defeat the bully Lieutenant Colonel and thus the story unfolds. In the words of Winston Churchill, the story is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enegma.”
The characters are wonderfully drawn—the dwarf Michael, the ex-Oakland Raider Samuel, the Sayer Ruth, Lieutenant Colonel Cooper, Roy—Kyle’s former philosophy professor whose aphorisms recur in Kyle’s memory just when needed, and so on. The storyline bolts along like the horses Buck and Penny (Sweetheart) that play equally important parts in the book as the human characters. Earlier in his career, McHugh had the job of co-editor and main feature writer for the Outdoors section of the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s an outdoor guy with a love for mountain biking, kayaking, hunting, fishing, rock climbing, mountaineering, bow hunting, hiking, horses, motorcycle riding, sailing, skin diving and probably other outdoor activities all of which inform his writing.
There’s subtle humor scattered throughout often at the expense of religion (“the invisible friend industry” … “Sayers are virgins, everybody knows that.” “Heard the same thing down in Elysian. Except that rule doesn’t seem exactly ironclad, does it?). Or, when the dwarf Michael escapes detection because he’s so small: They sought, yet they did not find.
“There was a way-old movie,” Kyle said, “old even before the Flare. Called, ‘Three Coins in the Fountain.’ Ever hear of it or see it?”
Carlos shook his head and looked annoyed.
“My granny collected old movie DVDs, so I did see it. It’s all about good and bad luck in love. I now have a similar story, one I’d like to call, ‘Three Hairs on a Pillow.’
There are cultural allusions that may be more of a key than realized if you gloss over them (“Take a load off Fanny.”) A small diss to Ayn Rand tickled my fancy: Ayn Rand claimed that emotions weren’t tools of cognition, Roy told him. Another thing that bonehead was wrong about. Emotions are fine tools of cognition, simply our most primitive ones. And that’s how a man of logic and wisdom should utilize them. Basically, see emotion as a raw energy source.
I’m a sucker for seeing similarities where there may be none. Something about McHugh’s story brought to mind Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar. Maybe it was the vision of Rebecca’s body lying at the bottom of Bethesda Pool.
Even though the story is sci-fi and takes place after “the Flare,” it’s quite relevant to today with a reality TV President and militia groups threatening state and Federal Capitols. At one point in the book Kyle is speaking with Abraham, the man who takes care of the horses. I noted this message that transcends the book.
“Up in Arcata, where I’m from, we’re mostly fighting to survive, just like you-all down here. But we also try to save key parts of the university from destruction, like its library. And we put effort into music and theater and film archives. Seems nearly thankless, right now. Yet future generations could truly value it. ‘Hope is a choice.’ That’s one more thing Roy used to say.”
“‘Gold is tried by fire, men by misfortune.’ And that’s your bonus thought for today. From a Roman, Seneca. He was about mid-range in a legacy that ran from Zeno to Spinoza. Then ultimately on to Roy Fisher, of course.”
Throughout the book there are plenty of “Royisms” that add to the pleasure of reading the book.
And Roy told us, if you don’t face the facts, you’re looking in the wrong direction.
This general advice is particularly good for would-be writers:
Let your neurons handle info that you’ve habitually excluded. One easily proves the worth of this move by sitting down in any spot, especially a familiar one, and shucking the scales of the usual from your eyes. Examine all surroundings anew. Don’t be limited by what you saw previously. Absorb things you’ve not allowed yourself to so much as notice before. The key here is not to attempt it by striving, but by relaxing.
Tell you what, son, if you learn how to love the way Luz does, you’ll have the full package, okay? No treasure better than her wise and steady heart. Commit to the well-being of others, as she always does. Make a better job of it than I did. Don’t seek satisfaction in trivia.
“Plus, my teacher Roy convinced me that everyone bears a social duty. To become a complete individual, a man must fully embrace links that go well past his mere existence as an individual.”
Not that you need to appreciate Roy’s philosophy or the author’s confessions about his life view. The story by itself is plenty to keep you entertained and engaged. A good book for tough times. Think in the Morning recommends it.
Thanks, David! Sounds like you really “got” the thing – after giving it a VERY close read!