On Steph Post’s ‘Lightwood’
Post’s sophomore novel is a hell of a ride that masters the conventions of the thriller and suspense genre, and leaves you wanting more.
Fiction | Novel
6.3” x 8.9”
Also available in eBook formats
New York, New York
Opening Steph Post’s second novel, Lightwood, is like finding a new series on Netflix and knowing after the first scene that you’re going to be needing some more free time. Here, the author of A Tree Born Crooked is back with another bad boy trying to escape his roots. This time it’s Judah Cannon, newly released from prison, and returning home to Silas, Florida, where he intends to stay straight but is quickly (and quite easily) pulled back into the Cannon family crime business. He gets caught in a dangerous triangle of his volatile father Sherwood, and a flailing biker gang called the Scorpions, and the Pentecostal preacher, Sister Tulah, who steals the show.
Looking first at the type of story it is, Lightwood keeps you turning pages by mastering many of the conventions of the thriller and suspense genre, including a heist, double-turns, revenge plots, and a showdown. At first glance, or with a light read only, some of these may be mistaken for cliché, but there is much more happening here. These pieces are how the genre works and why it’s so popular. The same reason a quick view of Netflix often turns into binge watching is why the reader will likely get through Lightwood’s 336 pages in just a few sittings. It’s a hell of a ride, and you have to find out what happens next. The make or break of this convention is often the ending, and that is one of the strengths of the book. It leaves you wanting to read more by this author.
It’s easy to see this book being adapted into a movie or series comparable to Sons of Anarchy, Bloodline, Sneaky Pete, or Hand of God. The chapters move the action quickly and often rotate between three major subplots. First is Judah, who has both the love interest Ramey and a moral dilemma of his family’s criminal legacy. Second is the refreshingly vulnerable Scorpions, who lack the confidence and determination of a stereotypical biker gang. And finally, Sister Tulah, with her unique blend of religious megalomania and criminal intent. As the chapters moved between these story lines, I found myself nostalgic for the old television format where you would almost feel the camera dramatically moving to the other story. The synthesis of the three is remarkable. They move on their own and come back together so naturally that it always feels like what has come from the story rather than what was put into it.
All three subplots are about legacy. Judah isn’t the only one facing decisions about what footsteps to follow. The biker gang is floundering, membership is down, and their leader Jack is less commanding of the group than his late Uncle Oren was. He is self-aware that he doesn’t have the same skills of his elder:
Oren would have cowed the Scorpions into doing exactly what he wanted; he would have made them afraid. And most importantly, Oren wouldn’t have let some crackpot woman preacher get the best of him.
Sister Tulah has a nephew she has loosely taken care of following her sister’s passing. His actions are key to bringing the three groups together. She directly taunts the weakness of her younger relative telling him she can’t believe they are of the same flesh and blood. He uses this challenge both in times of insecurity and as a boost in confidence. He is her flesh and blood regardless of her belief. That has to count for something.
This dilemma makes the younger generation face both the question of accepting a criminal inheritance, and of not living up to its expectations. So not only are they faced with should I be a criminal or not, but with can I be good at it? It’s not easy following after Sherwood, Oren, or Tulah. Particularly not when they often get to define what the name means. In a moment of conflict, Sherwood tells Judah that he has no idea what being a true Cannon looks like. Maybe Judah will if he can live long enough to be the one giving meaning to the last name.
In the end, Sister Tulah’s enigmatic character is what makes Lightwood so combustible. From the beginning, in every scene she is in, she commands attention:
No one watched Sister Tulah. They glared at her, cowered before her, spun their eyes in wild fear at the heavy thud of her footsteps approaching, but they did not watch her. She was the watcher and Bradford County and its inhabitants stood by silently and waited for her verdict.
She’s perfect because the reader has to deal with her very similarly to how the characters do. She can be hard to grasp. It’s too easy at first to assume that stereotypes will help you understand her. They won’t. It might be easy to underestimate her. You shouldn’t. Once you begin to see that Post’s Tulah is more Flannery O’Connor than Stephen King or Quentin Tarantino, you see the true magic of the work. This is a price paid for much easier by the reader than the characters she encounters.