Chuggie and the Desecration of Stagwater
By Brent Michael Kelley
December, 2011; $13.99 PB
Reviewed by K. H. Vaughan
Norchug Mot Losiat, Chuggie to his friends, is walking Drought. When, in his rambling, he stumbles upon the remote city of Stagwater, he finds love, temptation, and treachery. He fights against men, demons, and his own nature to battle the sinister forces threatening the city. But Chuggie? All he wants is a boat.
This is the setup for Brent Michael Kelley’s debut novel, Chuggie and the Desecration of Stagwater. A graphic designer from Wisconsin, Kelley also paints and writes. His short fiction was published in the anthologies Detritus (Omnium Gatherum) and A Pocketful of Moondust (Rebel Books UK). Kelley is successful in creating an unusual antihero, a perpetually drunken embodiment of drought who can suck the water from living things and drain lakes dry. He is dimwitted, profane, misdirected, and nearly purposeless. Without his elemental power he would not survive in a world as cruel and dangerous as the one the author has created.
The prose is simple and direct. Although not particularly polished, it is effective for the story and perhaps appropriate for the character it describes. A weakness of the book is that although there is clearly a lot of world-building behind the scenes, much of it is only hinted at. Many intriguing characters and ideas are sketched but not developed in any depth. It is unclear who many of the forces in the world are or what motivates them beyond a desire for power or mayhem. More of this history would have added richness and interest to the story. The strength of the book is Chuggie himself, who is a flawed but sympathetic creature, reminding one of Caliban from The Tempest. Late in the book, a character asks “How can you be so old and so naïve at the same time?” It’s a fair question. Chuggie is as old as the world itself, and although age does not guarantee wisdom, you would have to work awfully hard not to have gathered just a little in all those millennia. It is one of many questions about Chuggie and his world that remain unanswered.
Structurally, this is a story of two books. The first two acts involve a great deal of setup that outlines a world of strange demonic magic in a semi-industrial society with extra-dimensional alien invaders. The tone is absurd and often humorous as Chuggie encounters various characters who want to involve him in their schemes in one way or another. He remains obtuse throughout, swayed from his desire to head south for the winter only by falling in love with a woman who has been cursed by the evil Magistrates of Stagwater. In the third act, the pace picks up and things take a turn for the grotesque and horrific. A convergence of evil forces dooms Stagwater and its inhabitants in a whirlwind of surreal and graphic violence. Although this creates a level of urgency and intensity not found in the beginning, it is an abrupt shift from humor into pure horror, and the helter skelter pace of the finale leaves much unexplained.
As of February, the author reports that the next installment of the series, Chuggie and the Bleeding Gateways, is in the hands of his editor with a release date to be announced. The book will pick up where Stagwater left off. I look forward to seeing how Chuggie develops and hope that the author will reveal more of the strange universe he inhabits.