Alice Isn’t Dead: Anxiety Bros, unite!

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink horror book reviewsAlice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink horror book reviewsAlice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

Alice Isn’t Dead (2018) is a stand-alone novel, adapted from the three-season podcast of the same name, both of which were created by Joseph Fink. Where I would have given the podcast 3.5 stars, the novel is much more cohesive and much more successful at telling this story. Lines like “Earl’s eyes were empty pools of water” and “The subtext of America wasn’t just text here, it was in letters five feet tall” are less awkward, more natural, when delivered by an omniscient narrator rather than a lone woman monologuing over a CB radio to anyone who will listen.

Keisha Taylor wasn’t always a long-haul trucker. But then, her wife Alice wasn’t always dead. (Or is she? It’s certainly up for debate, which is why Keisha’s on the road to begin with.) One day, without any warning, Alice vanished, upending what Keisha had thought was a perfectly normal life. Eventually, Alice was declared dead, and Keisha retreated further and further into grief and isolation until one day when she saw Alice, alive, in a crowd shot during a news segment. Left with two possibilities — that she’s gone crazy, or that Alice isn’t actually dead — Keisha signs up with Bay and Creek Shipping and begins making deliveries all across America in search of answers. What she finds, however, is nothing even remotely in the vicinity of what she could have expected.

Two years later, Keisha’s eating an uninspired turkey club sandwich in a Bismarck, ND truck stop, completely unaware that her life is about to take yet another hard left turn. Here and now is when she first encounters the Thistle Man, a misshapen and foul-smelling creature who murders another truck stop patron to absolutely no fanfare or notice whatsoever. It’s like a horrible little show being put on for Keisha and Keisha alone. She runs away, but can’t stop coming across the Thistle Man, no matter where she goes — he randomly appears, sometimes killing bystanders, sometimes just watching her. It would be a horrifying experience for anyone, but Keisha suffers from intense anxiety, further compounding and amplifying her terror.

What helps is when Keisha realizes that she isn’t alone. Other people have seen and been attacked by the Thistle Man, and they’re equally invested in stopping him as well as finding out more about him, where he came from, and why he spreads chaos and death wherever he goes. One of her unexpected allies is Sylvia, a teenage runaway who commiserates with Keisha’s anxiety and subsequently convinces her to break into a police station to steal information which might lead them to answers about the Thistle Man. And everything I’ve described just barely covers the first third of Alice Isn’t Dead, which contains a multitude of revelations, character interactions, plot twists, and a heartbreaking amount of hope in humanity’s better angels.

One of the many aspects of Fink’s work which keeps me coming back is his ability to create characters that the reader can’t help but connect with; Keisha’s anxiety and terror, her loneliness and grief, her joy at connecting with another person, are all palpable. Alice Isn’t Dead is atmospheric and creepy, it’s insightful — especially with regard to the long-term effects of said anxiety, or of directionless hatred — and as fantastical as the trappings of the story might be, there’s truth to what Fink has to say about divisiveness, grief, the endurance of love, and the combined strength of a community who refuses to let hate and fear win. It would be a powerful message at any time, but it feels especially relevant now.

Fink doesn’t sanitize mental illness or sugarcoat it in any way, and neither does he glorify it; he’s been very honest about his own issues with anxiety and how he used those struggles to enrich the novel and other projects he’s worked on, like Welcome to Night Vale. I don’t think readers need to have any degree of anxiety disorder to identify with Keisha, but for those of us who do, his implementation of personal experience and insight are sure to resonate.

Heavy on suspense and thrills, with satisfying revelations and answers and a pinch of free play with the space-time continuum, Alice Isn’t Dead rewards readers who believe that hope is vital, that change takes hard work and sacrifice, and that there might be some usefulness in feeling like everything could go horribly wrong at any given moment. Highly recommended.

Published in October 2018. From the New York Times bestselling co-author of It Devours! and Welcome to Night Vale comes a fast-paced thriller about a truck driver searching across America for the wife she had long assumed to be dead. “This isn’t a story. It’s a road trip.” Keisha Taylor lived a quiet life with her wife, Alice, until the day that Alice disappeared. After months of searching, presuming she was dead, Keisha held a funeral, mourned, and gradually tried to get on with her life. But that was before Keisha started to see her wife, again and again, in the background of news reports from all over America. Alice isn’t dead, and she is showing up at every major tragedy and accident in the country. Following a line of clues, Keisha takes a job as a long-haul truck driver and begins searching for Alice. She eventually stumbles on an otherworldly conflict being waged in the quiet corners of our nation’s highway system — uncovering a conspiracy that goes way beyond one missing woman.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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5 comments

  1. Oh, this sounds like something I would like.

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