‘Came A Horseman’ gallops into the post apocalypse

Paul McHugh’s ‘Came A Horseman’ was published on Jan. 1, 2021.

An unforeseen event results in a new global paradigm, then an authoritarian coup is attempted.

Add prescient to adjectives to describe Paul McHugh, who this month published his fourth novel, “Came a Horseman – A Hard Ride In A Fierce World.”

A former newspaperman, the author uses his investigative reporter skills to write his books. With an equine theme, gumshoe McHugh comes full circle back to his fiction debut, “Deadlines,” a caper that starts with a murder scene at a horse stable. The new one features a man of action and thought, such as Achilles blended with Aristotle. Before a solar flare knocked technology back a century or two, Kyle Skander was a philosophy professor at Humboldt State University.

Kyle is a brilliant badass as well as loquacious smartass to his foils. His mentor, Roy Fisher, is always in his thoughts as he finds ways to survive perilous situations. “If you don’t face the facts, you are looking in the wrong direction,” Roy’s voice reminds Kyle, who has been shipwrecked somewhere between San Francisco and Arcata.

Kyle is held captive by two communities. Elysian is a religious cult of farmers and the Tribe lives up in the hills and in trees, hunting, smoking weed and horsing about. Both find Kyle a convenient scapegoat.

“Life is neither good or evil, but merely a place for good and evil. … You have the power over your mind – but not outside events. Realize this and find strength.” Both quotes from Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and philosopher, set the scene for our hero.

McHugh’s fictions are multi-leveled page turners and this one has one has fewer characters and storyline tentacles than the previous books. It could be made into a thriller movie, but moreover, “Came A Horseman” is fun reading. His descriptions are vivid, and the former San Francisco Chronicle outdoors editor has experienced many of the stunts Kyle endures, such as high-altitude rope swings, tankless deep water dives, kayak eskimo rolls in a seastorm, holding onto a galloping horse’s tail as bad guys shoot rifles at him. Well, maybe McHugh hasn’t done the latter, the part about the flying bullets, anyway. But regarding those bad guys, the author has a penchant for their creative conclusions told in vividly gruesome detail.

An ex-newspaperman myself, I was surprisingly pleased to have my alma mater featured. If Kyle ever makes it home, he lives in Bret Harte House, which in real life is the Humboldt’s journalism headquarters. I also appreciate a most appropriate reference to a Molly Ivins column, and the subtle wink to Jack London.

After a thoroughly enjoyable read, I offered McHugh some follow-ups.

This is a timely book. When did you come up with the idea?

I actually finished a draft of “Came A Horseman” 10 years ago. But it didn’t really cohere for me, and I couldn’t interest an agent in representing it. So I shoved it in a drawer. In December 2020 I went on a cruise out of Tierra Del Fuego, and began working on a novel based on that trip. When I got back in January, the Covid plague broke out and by February it looked like the globe might not even have a cruise industry by 2021. So I shelved that project and thought about what else I might write. Our world was beginning to look a tad PRE-apocalyptic to me, so I hauled out that old POST-apocalyptic manuscript to re-evaluate it. Upon reading it again, I was able to put my finger on its flaws — the thing was just bloody awful! I mean parts of its original vision were OK, but the plot, characterization, etc. etc., needed a long ton of work. So I cracked my knuckles, sat down at the keyboard and went at it. Eight months later, a whole new “Horseman” galloped out of the barn.

This is page-turning adventure story. But it also is multilayered with philosophy, history, pop culture, humor. Is the idea to reach all variety of readers?

Yes, “Horseman” is meant to be a page-turner. And it does have all the layers you mentioned, and more besides (the natural history of the North Coast might be another example). And you are correct that that makes it a bit of a reader-buffet. Different sorts of readers can find different delectable bits suited to their tastes. But beyond that, life itself presents us with a rather similar panoply, does it not? A writer’s job, first and foremost, is to model the world. One could have a dose of fun trying to figure out what this book is in disguise. Is it a post-apocalyptic thriller disguised as a Western, or vice-versa? Is it murder mystery, an “amateur sleuth” tale? Or might it be a novel of ideas disguised as all of the above? One of my core themes is: when your whole game board gets shaken up, what kind of mindset does not get shook? But overall, “Horseman” is a true genre-bender. In Hollywood speak, this is “high concept.”

“Came A Horseman” was easy to read in that there seems to be fewer characters and subplots than from earlier books. Fewer scenes, too. I can imagine it on a stage or upon a screen. Had you considered those notions?

It is true that there are fewer characters and scenes in “Came A Horseman” than in all previous novels. There’s a couple of reasons for that, one of which is a quite large reason. Simply put, I think that a century of cinema has forever changed the way that people perceive and receive stories. It would be a foolish novelist indeed who failed to take that transition into account. There are ways to take it into account poorly — for example, by seeking to transparently imitate the woefully simple three-act formula of most screenplays. But there are ways to take it into account well — by doing scene-by-scene plot development, but accomplishing exposition in dialog. In any case, especially when writing a mystery or a thriller, one needs to deploy propulsive plot development, while making sure that at least two wheels remain in contact with the road surface at all times. You can stretch a reader’s credulity, but once you snap it, that’s very hard for a storyteller to recouple. One way to keep a reader engaged is to keep stuff happening at a brisk pace. Streamline the action, just as a film’s editor might. Now, there is certainly a place in the universe for books that describe stuff in full, that speculate, that meander, that contemplate, that soothe … but “Came A Horseman” is none of these things, by design.

What is the difference from news and fiction writing?

When I “jumped the fence” from journalism into fiction writing, I described the newfound freedom this way: In my decades of journalism, I was never once accused of making up or distorting a quote, and I took pride in that, although maintaining that sort of professional rigor was grueling. Now, I can not only make up quotes, but the people saying them! It’s crazy, it’s wacko, and so much fun. And a great relief. However, my old journalism habits still help me by informing the way I conduct research. Like all the work I did studying solar flares (especially the 1859 Carrington Event) just so I could toss off a global calamity in a couple of lines and thus set my stage. And you’re right, a reporter has to learn to investigate in much the same way that a detective does — lacking only the ability to assume a false identity. (Some investigative reporters of the past have done so, but it’s frowned upon now.) So that’s helpful, too. Both a detective and a reporter have to figure out what the true narrative of a situation might be. But as to “voice”, unless he or she is a columnist or doing an op-ed, reporters are not really supposed to have a voice. “Just the facts, ma’am.” Whereas a colorful detective can get a lot done by having an attractive and compelling voice, and is able to badger and boast in pursuit of his story.

Did you have a mentor such as the character Roy Fisher?

I never had a mentor quite like Roy, though I often wished for one as I was struggling to find my way in all sorts of ways. Perhaps that’s where the character Roy comes from: a bit of wish fulfillment. But I did have and do have today a very good friend who is a bit Roy-like. His name is Greg Gorman, and he was an upper classman in the seminary where I was training to become a priest when I was in my teens. I was 14 and he was 18 when we met. That’s an unusual gap to span at those ages, but he was impressed with my literary knowledge even then, and I was impressed with him because everyone was impressed — he was literally the brainiest guy in the joint. Smarter and better read than anyone on the faculty, physically fit, musically talented, handsome, poised and self-confident. As I was trying to process some of the knottier problems of Catholicism, he was hewing a path into Zen Buddhism, and so blazed a trail for me. I always benefited from Greg’s thinking, but even more from his example as he cut a swath through life with apparent ease and fearlessness. He’s now a retired neurologist, living in the mountains near Truchas, New Mexico. And as for me, well, you know about me.

  • ‘Came A Horseman – A Hard Ride In A Fierce World’
  • Author: Paul McHugh
  • ElkHeart Books, Ingram
  • E-book: $2.99
  • Print: $16.95
  • Website: http://paulmchugh.net/
Paul McHugh floats down to the mouth of the Winchuck River, looking south. Rediscovering California’s North Coast. A kayak voyage by Paul McHugh, Bo Barnes and John Weed. A paddle from the Oregon border to the San Francisco Bay.
Michael Maloney / San Francisco Chronicle

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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