Interview: The Underwater Panthers – Alana Joli Abbott (2024)


Jan. 2024




Charles Porter has long been tuned in to the voices he hears. “When I was ten or twelve years old, someone turned on a radio in my head and never came back to turn it off,” he describes. “It’s not exceptional; lots of people out there in the country, and in the hives, are like that.” Some of Porter’s characters are among that number as well, including Aubrey Shallcross, the protagonist of Porter’s Hearing Voices series. Beginning with The Blindspot Cathedral, which Kirkus Reviews named one of the Best Books of 2014, the series has now stretched over four books and most of a decade.


Like Porter, Aubrey is an only child who divides his time between residences in Florida and Massachusetts. Both work with horses, and both have a passion for conservation. In the books, Aubrey has always seen and heard things other people do not, including his constant companion, Triple Suiter. The three-inch-tall man, who lives in Aubrey’s left armpit, is what Porter calls a “slipper,” a spirit of the dead who resides in Aubrey’s psyche. In Triple Suiter’s own words in The Underwater Panthers:


“I live in the subconscious; other than a deep dream state, the clearest view you have of that land is when I move into the conscious mind as the go-between when you are awake, then I am wrongly called a figment of the imagination, a maggot, a muse, a daydream, schizophrenia, and other invented terms. Aubrey Shallcross is one who can hear and see me from his conscious side. I am not a product of his mind. I exist. I am, as much as you are and he is.”


After having converted a crooked property developer to their conservationist cause in Animal Slippers, the previous book in the series, Aubrey and his friends begin their newest adventure: sinking a tugboat in the St. Lucie Locks system to keep dirty water from flowing into the estuaries, contaminating them. Helped by two alligators, each with their own slipper, the team manages to get clear of the scene without giving away their identities.


But Aubrey is friends with one of the local detectives—he helped solve a cold case involving a serial killer in a previous adventure—so he knows that not getting caught is going to involve some finesse. His solution? Take all of his friends on a road trip to Massachusetts, where he has a farm. There, the crew of friends gets involved in another ecological cause: keeping criminals from stealing a baby humpback whale with albinism. “Porter weaves Moby Dick references throughout to add a literary thread to the narrative tapestry,” Kirkus Reviews describes. “This literary aspect is strengthened by the almost Kerouacian travelogue passages following the characters’ travels up and down the East Coast.”


The stylistic similarity to Kerouac is less intentional than Porter’s own preference for authors like Tom Jones and Cormac McCarthy. “Cormac and I have the same Gods, and they’re the redneck Gods,” Porter notes. Nods to Melville were more intentional. “I am surrounded by whaling history where I live up north, next door to New Bedford, Massachusetts. That’s where Melville started his famous whale story and where he spent time. New Bedford has an extraordinary whaling museum and is a huge fishing port.”


The novel is grounded in more than the ecological cause, however; early on, the story introduces a grieving Seminole teenager. Yuchee, the son of Freddie Tommie—a friend of Aubrey’s and one of the eco-warriors keeping the waterways safe—comes along on the journey north as part of his process toward finding peace after his mother’s death. Porter imagined a scene where Yuchee stood next to a girl with albinism—Eira, whom Yuchee and the others meet in Massachusetts—and the story of the whale came after. “Sometimes all that stuff just falls off you and shoots out your fingers like Ouija-board slides,” Porter says of his process. “You know, more free associations from that unlocatable location of things thought about.”


Porter draws on his own lived knowledge, growing up with Seminole classmates, to create characters like Yuchee and Freddie. They’re Black Seminoles, descended from both the Seminoles and the formerly enslaved people who fled toward freedom in Florida rather than the North. (Porter recommends the nonfiction title The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People by Kenneth W. Porter for anyone looking to gain a better grasp of their history.)


The title of the book, The Underwater Panthers, references a creature from Anishinaabe legends—which, one of the characters states, may have also been revered among the Seminoles. The eco-warriors take on the symbol of the underwater panther, alongside the motto, “You can’t offend nature.” Porter explains what’s important about that line in the books: “There’s a certain ambiguity to the statement: Does that mean you shouldn’t offend it, or does it mean it can’t be done?” he asks. “The answer is both: you better not offend it if you want…your children and their children to stay healthy and alive. And you can’t offend it because it is too big.”


Porter compares the Florida he grew up in during the 1950s to the state as it is now. He recalls that there were only about 2 million people living in Florida when he was a child. Now, the state has a population of nearly 22 million. Once, there were more cows than people in his hometown, which didn’t even have a stoplight. The St. Lucie River was full of wildlife: “giant schools of mullet, manatee, snook, and porpoise, and the wild ducks would land on the water in the winter by the thousands,” he describes. “All gone now. The river is completely dead after the Core of Engineers ran the water through their canal from Lake Okeechobee.” As with his experiences as a voice hearer, his own personal connections to the locks that polluted the St. Lucie River reveal why his characters chose that location to sink their tugboat.


What truly sets Porter’s novels apart from other adventure stories about saving the planet is his inclusion of the slippers, who add an element of what might feel like surrealism to readers who’ve never had Porter’s experience. “Everybody always goes, ‘Oh look! It’s surrealism.’ But when you think about it, we live in a society based on mythology and religion that people don’t consider anything but the truth,” Porter says. “So my world of slippers is just their world of souls. I just happen to believe that people with schizoaffective syndrome can hear and see these souls.” As a subtext, the novels describe Aubrey, Triple Suiter, and Porter himself as their own Trinity.


Alongside Aubrey, there are three other voice hearers among the cast, as well as a host of others who feel to Porter like old friends. “Touching base with the other characters in these stories is like keeping up with friends, only they are fictional friends that make you feel inhabited and lucky and grateful,” Porter shares. “They are like…a hand of cards and just as unpredictable.”


Porter dedicates The Underwater Panthers to the Hearing Voices Network, an organization of people who are considered schizophrenic but believe they should not be treated as ill or distressed. The more readers view the world through Aubrey’s and Porter’s eyes, the more they’ll perhaps open their minds to the possibilities Porter offers—and understand the importance of protecting the wild places. As Porter concludes his third novel, “The water is coming.”