It’s always comforting to compare a new thing to something already familiar. This is why, about 20 pages into American Elsewhere, I thought ‘This is like Eureka, but terrifying. It’s like they hired Stephen King to write scripts for them.’ A coworker told me she thought of it as the novelization of Welcome to Night Vale.
We like to think that we are looking for originality in fiction. But I think what we actually look for is original familiarity, or familiar originality. We want something that is not entirely unknown, but unknown enough to jolt us. Thankfully, there are centuries and centuries of stories, and making connections is not difficult. I think saying that a work reminds you of some other work is not a criticism, especially if it reminds you of something that genuinely stayed with you. And I can say that this novel reminds me of Eureka, but it is NOT Eureka. It’s also NOT Bradbury (though there are tones of Bradbury in there), or Danielewski (there are odd houses, never-ending hallways), or King. It is Robert Jackson Bennett, and he is very, very good.
The story, in short: an ex-cop Mona finds out that she inherited a house that belonged to her mother. The house is located in Wink, New Mexico, a town so remote that it doesn’t seem to be on any maps. But that’s not the only weird thing about it. Or rather, it’s not even the weirdest thing about this town…
I am a sucker for ‘nice little town where spooky things are happening’ theme. Same with ‘uncomprehending stranger in a strange town’ theme. Both of those allow for some nicely done exposition and create a situation where a creepy town seems that much creepier precisely because its residents treat odd things as either normal or as things that have to be put up with because that’s the status quo. They know there are weird things going on, and try their best to steer the newcomer away from them (‘You know not to go out at night, right?’). It’s perfection tainted on the inside.
It is a fairly big book, and yet I finished it in just a couple of sittings, thanks to Bennett’s skill as a writer and specifically as a horror writer. I started it before bed one night. That was a foolish mistake, because three hours later I was still awake, stuck in the vicious ‘one more chapter’ loop. I was also kind of reluctant to go to sleep because it meant turning off the lights. American Elsewhere terrified me (and I mean that as a compliment). The last time I was this terrified was when I read Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes.
In sum, American Elsewhere in unsettling, excellently paced, well-plotted, and full of great characters. I imagine it only improves on rereading.
Plus, there is an abandoned government science laboratory in it.