A review of American Elsewhere, a place where Lovecraft and Beaver Cleaver are always on the tour
Recently, I read American Elsewhere, a 2013 novel by Robert Jackson Bennett.
Let me begin by saying that I really enjoyed this book. Shifting universes, lurking insanity and monsters make American Elsewhere a work of science fiction. In addition, Bennett explores the dark corners of relationships, the lie of eternal happiness and the aching need for unconditional love. Rather than an alien landscape, the heart of American Elsewhere lies elsewhere—in the complicated terrain of family values.
American Elsewhere begins with two deaths. One death is a murder.
Two men kidnap a third who is bound and confined in the trunk of a car. As they drive to a designated place, the men do their best to ignore the pleas of the third. The victim’s entreaties come through the car radio. Reaching their destination, they toss their victim into a ravine. As they walk away, they hear screams.
Embittered ex-cop Mona Bright has a heartbreaking past.
Traumatized as a young child by her mother’s suicide, Mona also carries the pain of a broken marriage and the loss of a stillborn daughter. Mona’s story begins with the death of her father. She won’t miss him. In fact, she is delighted to inherit his vintage muscle car, a vehicle that he had forbidden her to drive. And Mona inherits something else. Her dead mother left her the deed to a house. Soon, Mona is on her way to claim her mother’s house.
An unidentified character knows she’s coming and that Mona is bringing profound change.
The house is in the town of Wink, a place that would be right at home in The Twilight Zone. Mona can’t find it on any map. Regardless, using various clues, she locates Wink, where a funeral for the murder victim is taking place. Mona’s police instinct picks up the mourners’ agitation and fear.
Something is definitely weird in Wink.
Nestled in the valley of the paranormal, where realities slide back and forth, Wink makes it difficult to know what’s taking place. The town seems stuck in a period stretching from the late 1950’s to the early ‘60’s, an impression that’s not only due to the hair-do’s. They still watch Leave it to Beaver, along with other vintage TV. Wink citizens are wholesome folk, a collection guaranteed to trigger teeth grinding in any self-respecting cynic.
Wink’s history includes a now defunct research facility, a mysterious Frankenstein’s lab where her scientist mother, Laura Alvarez worked.
Several years earlier, a bizarre lightning storm destroyed several buildings and killed several of Wink’s citizens, an event commemorated by a statue in the town square, set next to a bizarre civic center. As she explores the town, what haunts Mona is the mystery of her mother. Laura Alvarez was a researcher at the abandoned lab.
And one more thing: Time passes differently in Wink, a place where the sun is often red, the sky is pink and on occasion, mountains move like a Lovecraft monster.
Living in her mother’s house, Mona discovers a time warp. In the upstairs bathroom, she witnesses what happened during the night of the lightening storm when she sees the charred corpse of a little girl. In the morning, it’s gone. Along with learning more about her mother’s past, Mona searches the attic. Reviewing old footage from an office party, she recognizes a Wink resident, the realtor who verified Mona’s ownership of the house. The realtor doesn’t look a day older than she did almost forty years earlier.
Why does nothing in Wink make sense?
Bennett gives us snippets of other Wink stories. The town fuels its economy by marketing cocaine through a roadhouse just outside of the town. The proprietor of the roadhouse turns a blind eye to frequent murders and offers prostitutes along with drinks. He also receives instructions via an old ticker-tape machine, hidden in a back room. On occasion, a cryptic message appears.
The most frightening messages concern small boxes.
The boxes, unnaturally heavy, contain tiny rabbit skulls and must be delivered according to instructions. Bennett amps up the dread here—these boxes are bad news for the unfortunate recipients. Bennett renders the citizens of Wink in short segments.
We learn what it costs to live in Wink.
There are rules—places you don’t go, especially at night. Live a “wholesome” life or face consequences. If asked, allow the use of your child by beings you never see unless they choose to allow it. There are citizens who know more and these characters aid Mona, giving her instructions and warnings to further her search for the truth.
What happened to Laura Alvarez here, in this town?
Soon, as Mona searches for answers, she becomes a pawn in a bizarre war. Grudges play out and powerful factions do battle in Wink, where the collateral damage becomes all too real.
As I mentioned, I enjoyed reading American Elsewhere, a novel of over six hundred pages.
I never skimmed or skipped. I enjoyed every word. If you explore the shifting landscape of Bennett’s American Elsewhere, remember that Lovecraft and Beaver Cleaver are always on the tour.