I confess to having mixed feelings when I was done with The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh, by Steven S. Drachman, but the book’s relative brevity, strong finish, and the fact that its sequel, Watt O’Hugh Underground, was an improvement, means in the end I feel OK in recommending it, with a few caveats.
The cover will tell you right away we’re in Western world, with its neckerchiefed, gun-toting, cowboy-boot-wearing hero with the square jaw dodging a bullet, all of it drawn in that classic comic book Western style a la Kid Colt: Outlaw or Western Bandit. That’s Watt himself, and he’s clear Western material — with his self-told “yarn,” his “shootist” skill and cattle drive experience. The hints that this is more than a simple Western though come early in the way that Watt address his 21st century readers in ways that makes it clear he knows more than he should about this time period. Come to find out Watt is a “Roamer” — someone who can travel through time, though like all the other Roamers, save one very important one, he cannot make any changes. Which is too bad, as Watt has had his share of tragedy throughout the life he is about to relate.
After a bit of introduction to major characters, Watt quickly finds himself fired from his job as head of his own Wild West show in NYC, framed for murder, and sent to the famous Wyoming State Penitentiary. And then things really start to happen, with “things” including dragons, bird-women oracles, ancient Chinese Emperors and current Chinese poets (a minor one), Oscar Wilde, ghosts, J.P. Morgan, and a battle against a creeping utopianism/apocalypse centered on the town of Sidonia and its two founders, one of whom happens to be married to the singular love of Watt’s life. So The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh is part Western, part historical novel, part fantasy, part dime novel/comic book. To be honest, the combo wasn’t fully successful in my mind.
As mentioned, the novel is brief, coming in right around 200 pages. On the one hand, that’s a definite plus in my mind as I’ve grown tired of bemoaning how overly long so many books are (and to be clear, I don’t mind long — Bleak House is one of my favorite books — I’m talking unnecessarily long). On the other hand, the pace of Ghosts is a bit frenetic, with some plot points feeling more than a little random/haphazard, leaving the whole things feeling a little disjointed.
I also have to say that Watt’s voice didn’t fully win me over until toward the very end. Maybe I’m just not a big fan of “yarns” and “old coots” and “skeeters,” etc. And at times his references to later technologies and the like were either jarring or felt a bit too much like trying too hard to hit home the point that this character travels in time. The other problem was the character was passive reacting much of the time. If this were a much longer book, say 350-400 pages, I’m guessing I would not have stuck it out, between the somewhat arbitrary plot points and the narrative voice. But I can get through 200 pages pretty painlessly, and it wasn’t like the writing or voice was bad, just occasionally annoying and never wholly compelling. The book did pick up with the introduction of other characters, such as Wilde, or storylines, such as the Chinese one. And the last few scenes brought the book to a strong conclusion.
In the end, as I said, I had mixed feelings (still do). It was OK, but I wouldn’t have gone out and picked up book two on my own. I just didn’t feel the real need to learn what happened next. Book two, however, was sent to me with book one, and as it was equally short, I started it and was mostly glad I had as it was in just about every way an improvement on The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh (which as mentioned wasn’t a bad book, just a solidly OK one). If you like Westerns, or like reading about the Old West (Drachman does a nice job with the historical aspects I think), then you’ll probably enjoy The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh and Watt O’Hugh Underground even more. If you’re not a fan of the Old West, and can take it or leave it, I think I’d say hold off until book three comes out. Right now, the improvement between books one and two bodes well, but you might as well wait to see if that trend continues.