The Ghosts Of Watt O’Hugh

by Steven S. Drachman

Reviewed by Adam Armstrong

Tall tales tend to grow as time goes on. Tales of near misses with death become stories of almost superhuman luck and agility. With no witness to the past, tales can become legend. On the other hand, if we were to ask the legends themselves we may get an entirely different story. And this story may be much more bizarre than the tall tale we started with. 

Watt O’Hugh is a man well over a hundred years old and attempting to write his memoirs before he dies. He knows how much time he has, down to the day, and he doesn’t want to be forgotten by history. Watt can roam through time. Though he can’t change the future or the past, he can go in either direction any time he wishes. This is just one of his many talents. Drachman not only gives us a sense of urgency with the Herbert Selby Jr.-like writing before dying, but he immediately gives the protagonist and friendly, folksy manner of speech that is welcoming and disarming. 

Watt had a illustrious life: he was a hero of the draft riots, served in the union army, became a hero once again out west, and then was recruited by J.P. Morgan to be the central character of a wild west show in New York City. One evening during the show, Watt noticed some men that aren’t part of the act. He notices in part because he doesn’t recognize them and in part because they are shooting real bullets at him. With quick thinking and some help from his ghosts and his sidekick, Emelina, he thwarts the attackers. The audience (that doesn’t know it is not part of the show) loves it. After the show Watt and Emelina make an attempt to go to dinner, but their plains are interrupted when two government agents try to give Watt a job he doesn’t want to take. Watt’s refusal leaves him in a Wyoming prison with a bullet in his chest and two broken legs. It was at the prison where his real adventures began. 

Though he was sent to prison in order to infiltrate a group of men to avenge a burglary against J.P. Morgan he finds some unlikely friends. One is the first man Watt meets that can roam through time, Billy Golden. Billy is pure of heart and is able to change time. He wants to wage a war against the men of Sidonia and their magic. The other man is Mr. Tang, who is small, old, Chinese, and a woman. She has her own motives for enlisting Watt's help. Though everyone is wanting him to do something all Watt wants to do is find his true love, Lucy Billings, and save her.

This book has a lot going on. At times the reader feels like they are being pulled in multiple directions at once. Normally, I would say that this is distracting and ill advised for a writer. However, Drachman tells the story in this multilevel manner because that is how the character goes through his life. There are a few story arches opened up here but only one followed through. This is the first book of a trilogy but there is just a bit too much time spent on stories that will happen in later books. The book could have done a better job focusing on the Lucy Billings story. 

Watt O'Hugh is a richly developed character that, though he seems indestructible at times, he is full of basic human thoughts such as: doubt, selfishness, and reluctance. The way the character jumps back and forth using both speech from the 19th century and from present day, that he learned from roaming time, makes us relate and like him that much more. All the other quirky characters are fully fleshed out as well, from the pure-hearted Billy Golden to the nefarious J.P. Morgan. Drachman gives us enough to care about the main players (even the bad guys) but not so much to draw away from Watt O'Hugh's story.

The Ghosts Of Watt O'Hugh is a fun read and leaves you wanting more. Luckily it is the first part of a trilogy. The book was reissued in May of this year along with the second installment. It is definitely worth picking up. It has a wide appeal of fans of westerns, sci-fi/fantasy, alternate reality, or just plain good writing.