American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett
I confess I had my doubts about American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. I’ve read all three of his previous novels and he hasn’t let me down yet, but the mix of elements in his latest one left me feeling skeptical. It just seemed like too much: rural horror; a Stepford-like village; quantum weirdness; tentacled inter-dimensional creatures; a secret government lab; people who aren’t what they seem; Elder gods; classical mythology; muscle cars, hidden files and video footage; a pink moon.
I’m pleased to report that Bennett pulls it off once again.
Wink is a town in New Mexico, nestled among the canyons and pine forests at the foot of a mesa. Wink does not show up on any map, atlas, or even, presumably, on Google Earth. When you are in the town limits, the moon is pink. Most people, however, will never find that out, because a very few outsiders ever make it into the town.
One who does is Mona Bright, an ex-cop who is drifting through life. Mona’s father just died, leaving her his cherry-red 1969 Dodge Charger and a storage unit. In the storage unit, Mona finds a set of documents from a government lab in New Mexico, with information about her mother, who used to work there. She also discovers that she has inherited a house in Wink.
Mona’s mother committed suicide when Mona was six. Mona knows almost nothing about her except this. The house opens a window into her mother’s history and Mona decides to at least take a look at it.
Wink is a perfect town circa 1967, a delightful place to live if you follow a few simple rules. Don’t go out at night. Don’t go into the pine forest, and don’t ask questions. Soon Mona is breaking the rules and asking all the questions. Her first discovery is a memorial containing a list of names of people killed in a freak lightning storm; the same date exactly that her mother committed suicide.
Bennett shifts point of view among various townsfolk as well as Mona. Two older town residents in particular, Mr. Parson and Mrs. Benjamin, take a particular interest in Mona. Mrs. Benjamin is the town clerk and unofficial historian. She is an unreliable one, Mona discovers. She says she has no memory of Mona’s mother, but Mona finds an old home movie of a party at her mother’s house, and Mrs. Benjamin is in it. She realizes that laws of space and time do not work in Wink the way they do in the rest of the world.
The reader has already come to realize that a large number of people in Wink are not exactly people. It is also clear that the rules that have made Wink stable for a long time have changed, abruptly. This has an urgent and personal meaning for Mona, Mr. Parson and Mrs. Benjamin.
The story of Wink itself is not so unusual. Beings from another dimension coming into ours is a standard science fiction or horror trope, but the original touch here is the arrangement these beings have made, the source of the arrangement, and the seriousness of the changes that are coming. Mona is crucial to these changes, and she is only beginning to understand why.
Bennett nicely mixes classical mythology, Lovecraftian gothic, quantum science and what’s-in-the-woods horror. There are flashes of weird humor, like in the set of flash cards (flash cards??) Mr. Parson gives Mona. He has a knack for making the simplest objects frightening, like a fax machine, an old telephone, or a rabbit skull. Those rabbit skulls are terrifying.
American Elsewhere works because after you delve through all the beautiful weirdness, it is a book about family relationships. Mona must deal with her own fractured history and the damage it has done her, while Parson, Benjamin and their brother Mr. First have to deal with their own parental issues. For the bulk of the book, Mona accepts other people’s evaluation of her, that she is broken. It isn’t until she comes to grips with the truth about her mother that she can successfully challenge what is happening around her.
There were times, reading this, that I thought the book was too long, and Bennett distrusts his skill in places. He creates a false eleven-day deadline for Mona at the beginning of the book, a deadline that has no meaning and only raises questions. I was never convinced that Mona was a cop. On the other hand, she didn’t need to be a cop. It is enough that she is smart, strong and scrappy. I was a little confused at the end about who was human and who was “other,” and just who died, and that final battle seemed to go on for a long time. None of these issues spoiled my enjoyment of this book.
The sense of place that infuses Bennett’s other works comes through nearly every sentence in American Elsewhere, whether it’s the chirp of lawn sprinklers in Wink, the scent of the pines under the hot sun, the tunnels under the deserted lab or the familiar strangeness of another dimension. Use of the present tense gives the book a sense of immediacy and also shares with us the disjointed, nightmarish sense of events that Mona experiences as she investigates. American Elsewhere is a fine read.