Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere is about a little town in New Mexico called Wink. Wink is full of white picket fences and lots of rules, one of the most important of which is “stay inside at night.” Mona Bright has just inherited a house in Wink and the day she arrives is the day of the funeral of one of the town’s oldest residents. Oh, and thirty years ago there was some sort of accident at the lab up on the mesa. And Wink isn’t on any maps (because of that lab and its sensitive government work from decades past).
This all sounds like a pretty standard Stephen King-ish horror novel, and in a lot of ways it is. There’s nothing frighteningly innovative going on with the text. Challenges mount, characters rise to meet them in the face of sanity blasting beings we would go mad to perceive. Occasionally as a reader, you’re a few steps ahead of Mona, which can be annoying as you wait for her to catch up. But Bennett is very good at telling the story. The “seeing something impossible and it wrecks your brain” is described in a way that makes it sound scary rather than just a magic eye or what have you. It’s good neo-Lovecraft.
The viewpoint shifts between a number of characters and even the drug dealers are basically root-for-ably written (apart from one character who is quite vile, but he’s mostly there so Mona can get a high-powered rifle in the final third of the book). If you like Stephen King novels, this is less dark than those (though there’s a lot of death around the climax), but similar. It’s less about mythic resonance than a Tim Powers book, but there’s a lot of shared DNA between them. What I liked best about it was that it was a fairly serious examination of how we (people and pandimensional beings) try to be happy. That probably excludes it from a real Lovecraftian vibe, since by the end the monstrosities are somewhat knowable.
Suspense! Unreality. Strange happenings and even stranger people. Or are they?
Bennett does a fantastic job of painting horrific and beautiful scenes. New Mexico is the perfect setting. Wink is stuck in the mid-1960s with Googie architecture and an invisible barrier to its inhabitants - direct from The Twilight Zone. I enjoyed every bit of this book.
I have always loved books and movies where there's something wrong with a town or a store or something of the sort. This book is stellar horror fantasy. I loved every plot twist. I did find an editing mistake. A character who's a large woman all of a sudden is fighting with dainty small hands and feet.
I've been reading this for seven days now, and it's continuing to baffle me - in a good way.
The town of Wink, New Mexico seems to be inhabited by some type of either aliens or supernatural beings who are hiding as humans. Mona Bright comes along looking for information about her mother, and for unexplained reasons (probably something to do with who, or what, her mother was, but it's not clear) she can see the different layers of reality that exist in Wink. Just as she arrives in town the townspeople (humans and 'aliens' alike) are holding a funeral for Mr Weringer, one of the 'aliens' as it turns out. The 'aliens' believe they cannot be harmed, cannot be murdered but strange guy in a dirty canvas suit and panama hat has some humans working for him, helping him murder the supposedly unmurderable. The murders are possibly the strangest part of the whole story, so far. The men - Norris, Dord, Dee, and Zimmerman, all run by Bolan are sent to retrieve a box, inside which they've very carefully placed, without touching, the top half of a rabbit's skull (the lower jaw is missing, don't ask me why). They then corner, capture or deliver the skull to their intended murder victim. They place the partial rabbit skull on the victim (still without touching it) or the victim touches it themselves when opening their surprise gift box. The men then make themselves scarce, because as soon as the victim has touched the skull the man in the canvas suit turns up and the screaming starts.
Because of Mona's ability to see what isn't there, and Laura's (her mother) complete personality change after her departure from Wink I'm getting the idea that Laura was one of these 'aliens' and that after seven years away from her home and siblings she could no longer take the separation, ending with her suicide. This means that Mona was supposed to be in Wink, that she's practically a local. Add the fact that she's an ex-cop makes it seem likely that she's going to be the one to solve the murders and stop the man in the panama hat. To be continued...
An alien invasion story, with a very unique twist! I think there might have even been some religious connotations in there. There was Mother, who had a baby, but he wasn't quite right so she kicked him out of the 'nest'. She then had five further children who all had their own special abilities and were told to never hurt each other, to obey the next oldest sibling, and that they could never die. The oldest sibling called himself Mr First and in the end, after a great battle with Mother, he died to save others. Being the agnostic/atheist that I am I had no idea of the religiousness incorporated into the story, but after having a nightmare vaguely related to the book I described some parts of the plot to my Mum and she said "Oh, that sounds like the bible story of how Lucifer fell from heaven." After that, religious bits kept poking their heads up through the rest of the book, once I'd been made aware of it I couldn't help but see it (kind of like Mona after she began to see the different layers of the town).
In summation, I really enjoyed the book and will definitely be on the lookout for other books by Bennett.
What Bennett does so well in American Elsewhere is offer a nostalgic slice of small town America, as wholesome as apple pie on the surface, with something rotting and dangerous underneath. He manipulates placid descriptions of people and places, nudging small details out of place, all seemingly innocuous at first, but the sum of the whole experience is goosebumps creepy. The first half is a slow burn. But in the second half Bennett starts accelerating the pace, throwing us plot twists that come faster and faster (and at times become more and more implausible), until I was no longer scared at night but more amused—and exhausted. Bennett doesn't let you rest until a monster showdown at the end.
American Elsewhere, for its sheer imagination and as a mashup of horror and science fiction, is a pretty compelling read, a page turner. I'm giving it 4 stars for the first half of the book and its buildup of creepy Americana and arresting images and scenes; 3 stars for the second half, when the horror show turns sharply into a Lovecraft-ian imitation.
Typical Bennett -- complex, genre bending, dark, compelling. Mona Bright is a wonderful character.
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