American Elsewhere, a place where Lovecraft and Beaver Cleaver are always on the Tour

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A review of American Elsewhere, a place where Lovecraft and Beaver Cleaver are always on the tour

***Spoilers***

Cover of Robert Jackson Bennett's American ElsewhereRecently, 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.

The Changeling: the changing road to nowhere

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The Changeling: the long and winding road to nowhere   a review

Lavalles's The Changeling book coverThe Changeling, a novel by Victor LaValle and set in today’s New York City, is a dark fantasy like the grimmest of fairy tales. Despite its urban setting, the plot of The Changeling follows a torturous path of omens and hints, illusion and lies. Unfortunately, the novel’s ending belongs to another fantasy altogether. The ending seems unrelated to what happens before. Like the glass slipper and the stepsister’s foot, the fit is all wrong.

I admire LaValle’s no frills prose and was impressed by the sense of disorientation I shared with Apollo, his protagonist.

As I read Apollo’s history, his parents and their relationship, how he came to love and sell old books and the story of his new marriage and child, I settled in. The simplicity of the story and its appealing characters kept me turning the pages.

Then an abrupt change in the narrative of The Changeling knocked my socks off.

Apollo loses his child in the most horrific way I can imagine. Since I had already bonded with Apollo’s character, I identified with his desperation and the horror of his loss. Bewildered and unprepared, Apollo struggles to make sense of what happened. And why did his wife become someone else, then disappear? Was it his fault? Did the photos of his son, the ones he took and emailed cause the unimaginable? There were other photos, not taken by him, inexplicable images. Who took them? Apollo begins his journey in search of answers.

I followed Apollo down the rabbit hole of inner city reality and a nightmarish fantasy world.

His story mesmerized me until the trails and plot lines led to nowhere. Important characters like the island witches abruptly disappeared with little to no resolution, their compelling stories untold. Despite the novel’s supernatural underpinnings, the story’s end, in my opinion, was nonsensical and a disappointment. On the whole, the resolution did not live up to its beginning, Unfortunately, despite its great beginning and an appealing protagonist, The Changeling morphed from riveting, to confusing until finally it betrayed its promise.

Still, I’m open to reading more of LaValle’s spare, elegant prose.

I plan to explore his other novels, where perhaps other lost children and “wild things” await discovery.

Can you hear me now? A Review of “The Listener” a novel by Robert McCammon

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 A Review of “The Listener” by Robert McCammon

I just finished reading The Listener by Robert McCammon. Though I enjoyed it, I wish there had been more to the plot and more shading given to his characters.

***Some Spoilers***

McCammon's The Listener

Robert McCammon’s novel “The Listener”

This was unexpected. I have read sixteen McCammon novels. Whether involving the supernatural, an alien invasion or the exotic criminal world navigated by 18th Century New York detective Matthew Corbett, The Listener, like all Robert McCammon novels, offers detailed settings and lots of characters in a good story.

The Listener takes us to the Deep South of the 1930’s.

A charming grifter, John Pearly, a bible salesman with the face of a choirboy and the soul of a snake intends to fleece a widow and her children.But the steely-eyed widow knows a liar when she sees one and sends him on his way.

In a rage, John kills a litter of puppies belonging to the widow’s children. No redemption there. And time to move on. Destiny calls when John stumbles in to a “sex education” course in another county.

A voluptuous woman named Ginger is doing illustrations on a blackboard, information much appreciated by a crowd of horny farmers who give her their rapt attention. Ginger’s waiting for the seriously intoxicated “doctor” to show up and continue the “lesson” when she spots John, a kindred soul of the grifter persuasion.

When it comes to evil, meanness and all related concepts, Ginger was at the front of the line when the Devil passed them out.

So of course, John is somewhat smitten, though he knows that she is like a black widow spider, and wouldn’t hesitate to enjoy him as a tasty meal after sampling his smarmy charms. In all his evil deeds, John has never murdered anyone other than puppies. With breathtaking efficiency, Ginger completes John’s bad guy training. The doctor’s last appointment is with the business end of a gun. John is officially a murderer. What could go wrong?

Soon after the doctor’s demise, Ginger ditches John. Outraged, he tracks her to New Orleans and a new identity. Ginger is impressed enough to clue John in on a get-really-rich-quick project.

There’s a wealthy businessman with two children. What if someone kidnapped those rich brats?  Their rich father would pay a lot to get them back. If John helps her, he can go to Mexico and live like a king.

Okay then. We’re introduced to Curtis, a sweet natured nineteen-year-old black kid who works as a red cap for the Union Railroad, helping passengers with their bags.
Curtis is a “Listener,”

a term he learned when he was a small child. His mother took her strange little boy to a local shaman (or is it shay-woman—the shaman was a she). Regardless Curtis kept talking to people in his head and his mother feared he was hallucinating. We learn that Curtis is telepathic. Throughout his life, Curtis has linked minds with other telepaths. Occasionally, when encountering someone less than hinged, he would leave his telepath receiver off the hook.

When he links minds with Nilla, an eleven-year old girl, he knows he has a friend.

His mother, a widow in her thirties, has become a childlike hypochondriac who demands too much of his attention. When a girl breaks Curtis’s heart, it is Nilla who comforts him.

And it is Nilla and her little brother Jack who are the rich man’s children, soon to be kidnapped by Ginger and John Pearly.

I’ll leave the spoilers there.

If this were any other writer, I would end by saying that The Listener was a pleasant read,

a perfect way to spend the weekend on the couch. But it’s Robert McCammon and there’s something missing for me. There’s very little depth to any of it.

Curtis lets nothing deter him in his efforts to rescue Nilla. In the process, he endures a savage beating, a byproduct of the racism of the 1930’s South. And he still keeps going. Curtis is angelic, self-sacrificing and a perfect hero. He does finally set his mother straight, telling her she’s not sick and that she should get a life. Other than that,

Curtis’ unrelenting goodness puts me off.

John Pearly resembles a character from McCammon’s alien war story, The Border. Pearly’s character reminded me of the preacher who becomes a sex slave to an alien whose cartoon sexuality reminds me of Ginger’s hyper-nasty but seductive black widow venom. And like The Border characters, they engage in ritualistic twisted sex.

Although Pearly is given an abusive childhood that explains his character, I never did get a sense of what drove Ginger’s hate.

If you’re looking for something good to put on your kindle, a straightforward story of good and evil, consider The Listener, a pleasant way to spend  an afternoon.