Last year I found myself reading some horror again after a twenty year hiatus. It wasn't deliberate, I didn't seek it out, it just seemed to come my way. Perhaps the boundaries between horror, fantasy, and SF are thinning or shifting, because more horror is catching my attention or ending up in places where I will see it. American Elsewhere, for instance, is published by Orbit, one of my favorite publishers. They describe themselves as publishing science fiction, fantasy, and urban fantasy, and yet to me American Elsewhere is clearly horror.
Because I'm just coming back to this genre again, I am still learning its shape and flavor and boundaries. I sometimes run into problems with these books, because my mystery-, sf-, and fantasy-reading expectations do not match up with how horror stories are constructed. In the fiction I usually read, the goal (usually attained) is to figure out what's going on and set everything right and save as many people as possible. In horror, it seems to me, it's not uncommon for the end to have a main character dying to stop the scary evil things, or the story to end with one or two survivors leaving the scene of destruction, after everyone else has been killed. This tends not to be a very satisfying ending to me, frankly. Which is not really a problem with the genre, it's a problem of my expectations. Or perhaps that type of story just isn't my thing. I'm not really sure, only time will tell. And so I will keep sampling and thinking about it some more.
Anyway, on to American Elsewhere. The main character is Mona Bright, a thirty-something drifter who discovers, after her father's death, that her late mother had owned a house in the town of Wink, New Mexico. Mona decides to investigate, both out of curiosity about her mother's life before marrying her father, and out of a vague itch for happiness, which she hopes she might find in a new home in a new place. The first problem she faces is finding the place, as Wink isn't on any maps she consults, nor can any of the government offices she calls tell her where it may be -- they apparently have no record of it.
Some digging turns up the information that Wink is near the Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory. Mona concludes that it's possibly a company town built next to a secret government facility, explaining why it might be hidden. She eventually manages to get a general idea of where it might be, and once she gets to the right area, she finds the town by asking people for directions.
Wink is off the beaten path, deep in a valley in the mountains, and it is strange. A seemingly idyllic little town, with thriving downtown businesses and tidy homes and immaculate lawns. When Mona arrives the town seems deserted, but she discovers that nearly everyone is attending the funeral of an important figure in the community. She has some weird experiences with some weird people, and the next day manages to get through the paperwork and go to her new house, which had been her mother's. It, too, seems idyllic, except for the upstairs bathroom where, she is told, a child died many years earlier during a lightning storm. Indeed, the town lost a lot of people the night of that storm. She learns that the laboratory has been closed for decades, and no one she talks to remembers her mother, who had left the town almost forty years previously.
I had problems with the town of Wink. It is portrayed as a weird place, frozen in time, where they still show '50s and '60s shows on television, no one ever gets divorced, and the women seem like Stepford wives. It feels frozen in the 1950s or perhaps the first half of the 1960s, and I had trouble imagining how it happened that way, or how old the town was. At first I got the impression that the town had been built at the same time as the laboratory, to house and provide services for its employees. And yet the lab was built at the end of the 1960s, so how could the town be frozen in an earlier time than that? And if the town was there before the laboratory, what was it doing there? That is to say, towns aren't formed without a way for people to support themselves. There needs to be a reason for people to settle in a place, like farmland or industry or shipping or something that would draw people there and allow them to earn a livelihood. And yet there appeared to be no job-creating industry there other than the lab, so why would there have been a town there before that? It didn't make any sense to me. Of course there were reasons why the town came to be the way it is when Mona arrives, but before that, in the sixties and seventies, Wink's existence, as it was, just doesn't really make sense.
Mona is tough and dogged and works okay as a horror novel protagonist, but she is a bit dense, so the reader figures out a lot of things before she does. (And I often got frustrated with her because of it. People are trying to fill her in on things, or hinting at things, and she just argues and complains and doesn't really get it. She is not particularly a likable hero.) And Bennett does a good job of dragging out the mystery and not revealing anything too quickly. This is a nice change from a lot of the books I've been reading recently, where the authors hurry things along and churn out short, quick stories without much depth. We don't really find out all of it until around page 400, and yet the book doesn't really drag, Bennett is just revealing the full story in layers, and they are mostly quite interesting. I occasionally had trouble keeping track of the human allies to the scary bad thing that's causing problems, particularly two stupid heavies called Dee and Dord -- their names and roles were too similar for me to really be able to distinguish between them.
I am not really saying much about the plot, am I? Hmm. Okay. Wink is a strange town. Something happened years ago, something related to the laboratory, and the town changed that night. The people who live there have idealized, tidy lives, but it comes at the price of not looking. Not looking out the windows at night. Not looking around when you sense you're not alone. Not going outdoors at night except right downtown. Never, ever going into the woods. There are things out there, things whose attention you don't want to draw. So you make a point of not noticing them, and hope that they won't notice you. It's strange, but the people of Wink are used to living this way. But now things have been stirred up. Prominent people are being murdered in the night. The strange ones out in the woods are restless. And things are about to get very interesting, and in her search for her mother's past, Mona will walk right into the middle of it.
I mostly enjoyed American Elsewhere. It builds up gradually, filling in the layers of the story bit by bit. Things seem to fall too easily or conveniently into Mona's lap, like finding the exact bits of information she needs in a library full of paperwork without spending days poring through it all to find the important stuff, but I suppose I can forgive that. I had more problems with the nature of the setting itself, as I detailed above. And I have to say, I didn't like the last part nearly as much as all the stuff that led up to it, but that is not an uncommon experience for me when reading horror. I'm more intrigued by the weird situations than I am by the violence. That said, it was well worth reading.