Brunswick County is invaded in “Azalea Bluff,” a new thriller from Holden Beach resident Dennis Hetzel. This time, however, it’s not about Little Green Men, or Little Gray Men, either.
Early in our story, something crashed or landed on the Brinkley High School campus near Azalea Bluff, a fictional town that looks like Shallotte.
Soon the authorities blocked traffic for miles. The Department of Homeland Security has declared a D819-B, a super version of martial law. Phones and radios don’t work.
Olivia Claven, founder and editor of a Brunswick County news website, tries to slip back to see what’s going on. She sees something: is it a giant acorn or does it have the shape of a bell?
And then she disappears.
Much of the rest of the book follows the frantic efforts of the Brunswick County Sheriff, a private investigator with Fox Mulder leanings, Olivia’s father, and others to find out where she went.
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Readers, however, know where Olivia is. Apparently she has seen too much, so she is being held in a locked room with no windows, no human contact in Area 51 or similar location.
Oh, the something at Brinkley High? The authorities explain that it is about a plane which has crashed carrying toxic chemicals for national security. Where was it?
Hetzel, the author of “Season of Lies” and “Killing the Curse”, had a problem. He’s writing a thriller, but one in which the protagonist spends over 100 pages locked in the equivalent of a budget motel with lousy room service. After an opening of “Close Encounters”, the plot seems to slow down for more than a few chapters.
But Hetzel deserves points for his originality, or at least for knowing good ideas when he sees them. He adapted his novel from a radio drama by Charlotte broadcaster Ed Galloway, who sadly passed away before the novel ended.
Without dropping too many spoilers, “Azalea Bluff” is a flying saucer thread without the conventional flying saucers or aliens. Instead, we get a mash of former astronauts, Nazi secret bases in Antarctica, and a touch of Doctor Who, told in some sort of “X-Files” background. (However, this is an “X-Files”, in which The Cigarette Smoking Man actually turns out to be a pretty cool guy.)
Behind all of this is the assumption that the truth is out there, but that our government, for various reasons, has decided that we cannot handle the truth.
Is that the case?
Diana Pasulka, professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, in her 2019 book “American Cosmic”, pointed out that more than half of all Americans, and more than 60% of young people, are convinced that intelligent life exists on other planets. Indeed, argues Pasulka, UFO-ology has become, in effect, a modern religious faith. As the poster says, we want to believe it.
Would millions of people really panic or revolt if the mainstream media started reporting a spacecraft landing? Or would there be a party?
Either way, for all of its flaws, “Azalea Bluff” provides hours of fun entertainment.
Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-616-1788 or at [email protected]
By Dennis Hetzel, with Ed Galloway
Terra Alta, W.Va: Headline Books, $ 19.95 paperback