It wasn’t that Nola’s vision had changed: it was that her vision had changed without her even knowing it. There were all kinds of things happening around her that she’d never known about, that she was blind to. Though her experience of the world had seemed whole and certain to her, in truth it had been marred, filled with blind spots, and she’d had no idea.
I rarely begin my reviews with quotes, but this one, pulled from a relatively early section of Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere, so perfectly represents the author’s style. His work captures the shadowed substance that always lurks in the corner of our eye, that we feel over our shoulder, and makes our skin crawl without cause. He did it in the novel I called the best of 2012 — The Troupe — and he’s done it again with American Elsewhere.
Mona Bright is just short of middle aged, a former cop without a lot going for her. She’s survived a shitty childhood and a failed marriage, and figures being shiftless is a hell of a lot easier than the alternative. When her father dies, she inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink, New Mexico. Knowing nothing of the house, but unable to deny a desire to discover who her mother was, Mona travels to Wink, a perfect little town in the shadow of a decrepit secret government laboratory.
It should be noted here that Wink isn’t even close to what it appears, stuck in time as it is in some bizzarro combination of the 1950′s and 1980′s, almost an idyllic picture of what America might look like to someone whose primary exposure was Happy Days and Growing Pains. The reality in Wink is something more akin to The Stepford Wives powered by Cthulu. That’s a misleading analogy, if it’s read literally, but I think it sets the tone of the novel rather well. And, if there’s one thing that’s important in a Robert Jackson Bennett novel, it’s the tone.
In American Elsewhere that tone is cynical,
Why this town has such an effect on her, she isn’t sure; but she knows now that it’s not some genetic defect in her brain that may one day send an impulse to her hand telling it to please pick up that loaded Remington in the closet, lift it to her temple, and await the hot kiss of cordite-perfumed led. Which is a pretty big relief.
She hates them all for having a happiness that is denied to her, because they don’t know, do they? . . . Those people in the film don’t know that their dreams will come to nothing. They don’t know how things really are, how they will be.
But Mona knows. She knows too well.
and always, disturbing,
The thing falls on him and he feels hard and rigid limbs grasp his back and pull him to it, and something fleshy and many-headed (like a sea anemone, he thinks, even as he struggles against it) wraps itself around his mouth, pries his lips open, and begins to worm its way into his throat. . .
While at first blush American Elsewhere seems a departure from Bennett’s previous work, being more modern and perhaps less fantastic in its initial milieu, many of these tones, and some of the larger thematic chords, are very consistent. Perhaps too much so with regard to The Troupe, Bennett’s previous novel of vaudeville and hordes of chaos bent on destroying existence. While both The Troupe and American Elsewhere speak to forces of the beyond destroying reality, and a more personal story of parental relationships at their heart, the new novel stands apart in its commitment to a more ambitious narrative. Moving through time, point of view, and narrative technique, Bennett challenges his reader to adapt to the changing circumstances in Mona’s journey.
Where Bennett most succeeds though is in sketching a villain that isn’t evil, but incomprehensible and uncaring. There’s a creeping doom that pervades every pore of Mona Bright’s life in Wink. More horrifying than a lack empathy or possession of uncommon zeal is sheer apathy toward human suffering, a quality the force behind Wink has in spades. To accomplish all of this Bennett tells a tale that is probably a little too long, a little too meandering, and a little too predictable. But, lost as I was in the telling of his haunting, and fucked up, little town (told in a third person present tense I might add), I hardly noticed.
Even if American Elsewhere at times reminds me overly much of The Troupe, a great novel in its own right, it is unquestionably superior to its predecessor. Bennett evokes notes of H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King, but does so in a voice and style that I’ve come to recognize as distinctly his. I believe Robert Jackson Bennett is one of the best living writers of speculative horror, and I wouldn’t argue dropping the last three words. Consider me his biggest fan.