Written by: James Keen
“You can only stay terrified and confused for so long. After a while, it unfolds and flowers into despair.” – ‘American Elsewhere’.
This is a book that is somewhat of an ungainly beast, not simply due to its bulky seven hundred page run but because of its wobbling aspirations to confound, terrify and, at notable intervals completely befuddle the reader in disparate quantities. It’s certainly a tale with an abundance of, at times, bewildering and slyly wrought creativity but it’s also a novel that up until it’s closing chapters is clearly extremely reticent to reveal its hoary old antecedents in horror fiction for fear of perhaps disengaging reader attention as there are ‘things’ in here that the seasoned horror aficionado has certainly come across before.
Bennett opens with an intriguing and confusing episode involving a crew of home invaders that very quickly sets the dizzying and sinister tone of what is to follow. This is a somewhat botched burglary whose participants offer us a glimpse of the decidedly odd events that are to follow. Bennett shifts narrative focus from this confounding event in the town known as ‘Wink’ to his young primary character, Mona Bright; a woman with a past that is at first glance, entirely disconnected with the events in this strange New Mexico town. Mona has been called to a reading of her father’s will, a man she thinks of as a “horrific skinflint”, whose worldly goods are shuttered away in a storage unit in Montana City. Faced with “such an imposing pile of tottering shit that she is almost faint with the idea of sorting it” she decides to take a 1969 cherry-red Dodge Charger and a box containing old photographs and documents pertaining to her mother who died of an apparent suicide when Mona was very young. There’s another wrinkle to the Will she isn’t prepared for; she has been left a house and that house is, of course, located in Wink, a place later described as, somewhere where “no one is entirely worry free when out and about in…at night”.
Unfortunately Wink cannot be found on any map and so Bennett has his protagonist do some basic investigative work – something our heroine is well equipped to do, given her background as a police officer – and while he does so he cautiously reveals Mona’s background, her paucity of contentment and revelations about her mother’s hitherto unknown career that proves surprising and fascinating. Juggling Mona’s personal search for answers regarding her mother’s ‘secret life’ with her fervent desire to reset her existence having “determinedly avoided having a life for several years, choosing instead barren roads and empty motel rooms”, Bennett concurrently peels back the layers of what constitutes life for the residents of Wink, a town created as a community centered around the research labs situated upon the nearby mesa. A lab virtually destroyed by events that took place in 1983. A lab that that is no longer functioning…or is it?
‘American Elsewhere’ begins to run out of the ominous steam Bennett builds early on in his narrative as clues are dropped that act as story markers for the direction the tale eventually pursues. The goings on in the lab which are related in the form of documents written by former employees, interviews by government officials with the scientists help to build the suspense, but there’s simply too many of them and Bennett’s attempts to obfuscate and distract the reader from the increasingly obvious motivations behind some of the town’s stranger inhabitants eventually becomes somewhat tedious in places, as it becomes plain that the narrative, with all its glimpses of the monstrous and the unnervingly odd is at its core a story about dysfunctional families, however bizarre those ‘families’ might be. Much of the text is far too dependant on Bennett’s literary ‘smoke and mirrors’ approach to dazzle and engage the reader with the result that the final ‘reveal’ – while feverishly written – is somewhat disappointing.
Taken as a whole this is a curious mix of terror, repulsive body horror and the all-out weird. A curious cocktail of elements and thematic ideas that often feels like an extended episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ heavily influenced by Lovecraftian concepts for much of its run. Bennett piles on the tension as he reaches the story’s conclusion with only a few missteps and where it does falter it’s primarily due to shoe-horning in character revelations that are necessary to the plot’s momentum – one character is suddenly revealed to be a crack shot with a hunting rifle, while another, the owner of a local roadhouse abruptly decides to embark on a course of action that smacks of lazy convenience for the writer.
A creepy, disturbing and certainly entertaining piece, it could have benefited greatly from a little more incisive editing as, for its overall conceit, it’s far too long. This is a solid effort from an author I’ve not come across before but on this evidence he’s a writer well worth following in the future.
You can order American Elsewhere right here.