Book Review: Robert J. Bennett's American Elsewhere

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

American Elsewhere, by Robert J. BennettIt’s hard to be impressed by the unknowable when you live right next door to the fuckers.
Which is to say that there’s a reason most of Lovecraft’s protagonists went insane at the end of the story.  If they’d continued to explain the Elder Gods in a refined, white-dude tone of voice for another fifty pages, it doesn’t matter how horrific Yog-Sothoth was, we’d get used to him.  Humanity’s survival skill is adaptation.  No matter whether we’re living in a ditch with flies laying eggs in our eyes or so rich that it’s cause for a bitch-slap if someone brings you a drink without ice, we come to think of what we know as normal.
So most books that open up a portal to brain-blowing other-dimension worlds and stay there long enough for us to get a good look?  Suck, and suck hard.  The Elder Gods are built on shock value, the idea that we literally cannot adapt to them… but the truth is, we probably could.  Stare hard enough into the void, and you’ll learn to ignore enough of it to get by.  And the more time we spend with Cthulhu, the more he seems kind of rubbery and sad.
American Elsewhere, however, takes a different approach.
Because there is a town in New Mexico, one that is on no map, one next to a mysteriously abandoned physics lab on a mesa.  This town, despite being miles from nowhere, is a 1950s-style wet dream of a town with a perfect pie-making diner and freshly-mowed lawns and kids playing baseball under the American flag.  Except when Mona, a hard-bitten cop with a suicidal mother haunting her past, discovers that she owns a piece of property here, she seeks it out – and finds exactly what is wrong underneath the surface….
Part of what keeps American Elsewhere bubbling along is that Robert J. Bennett knows just what detail is going to throw you.  He’s very good at setting up a realistic world, one that feels exactly like this one, made of studded 2x4s set deep into concrete foundations.  And then, in the middle of that painstaking realism, he places that one odd detail that uncorks potential worlds of weirdness seething underneath, a flurry of implications that keeps your brain frothing nicely.
(And, more importantly, he plays fair with the details.  They all make sense later on, in context.  It’s a lot like if LOST had actually thought that cause and effect was a priority instead of an annoyance.)
I don’t think it’ll be a surprise to any horror fan that the town of Wink, New Mexico is living right next to the unthinkable.  But the trick here is that Robert is smart enough to understand that if these wild other dimensions exist, we would be just as alien to them as they are to us.  As such, the book contains an astonishing amount of weirdness, but that weirdness expresses itself as a struggle for cross-pollination – of two wildly differing spaces trying to fathom each other, and the insanity that evolves from that imperfect adaptation.
Yet for all of this chaos, American Elsewhere remains firmly character-driven.  It’s not about the weirdness – it’s always resolutely set on exploring the people facing this weirdness, and the actions they take to defend what they think is right.  As such, what you wind up with is a lot like Half-Life might have looked if the protagonist wasn’t a mute man who could only interact with the world through violence; there’s a lot of exploring the past in an attempt to view the prism of the future, with many mixed results.
The end result is a very satisfying lap-buster of a tome, with that happy tension of a Stephen King or a Ray Bradbury echoing throughout it – that nostalgic pull we all feel for a stable town and home clashing inevitably with change – that feels remixed and refreshed.  It’s one of those books that should be a hot mess, but instead assembles itself into something more than the sum of its parts to become a statement on what America is, and might be.
As such, what you get is not a reflection of the unknown, but a distorted lens reflecting upon us.  And that is worth the price of admission, my friends.  Recommended.



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