I loved Robert Jackson Bennett’s fantasy novel Foundryside, so I was looking forward to reading one of his earlier books, American Elsewhere. Upon learning that she’s inherited a house in the tiny southwestern town of Wink, Mona Bright travels there. She discovers that the town holds many secrets: about her mother, her own past, and perhaps even the nature of the universe.
Unfortunately, I found myself somewhat disappointed. The major reason for this is that the book has some pacing issues. The tempo of the first half of the book is very slow, although it does pick up after that. A slow burn can be very effective for a horror story; some of my favorites feature a gradually increasing sense of dread. But a slow burn requires starting the story on low heat. The first chapter of American Elsewhere shows too much and starts at too high a pitch. This undercuts the buildup that comes later. I had a couple of other issues with the book, but since they rely on plot spoilers, I’ll discuss them at the end of the post.
That said, American Elsewhere does show off Bennett’s skills at worldbuilding. The full truth about what’s going on in Wink melds classic cosmic horror tropes with some concepts more often seen in straight-up sci-fi. Like many of the best science fiction stories, it raises interesting philosophical questions about selfhood and the divide between perception and reality.
There are also some genuinely creepy scenes. One of Wink’s inhabitants, an elderly woman named Mrs. Benjamin, has a closet in her kitchen full of exotic teas. An old woman’s tea collection doesn’t seem like it should be even remotely scary, but Bennett manages to turn “retrieving a tea bag from the closet” into an eerie, vertiginous experience. There are a few other scenes like this, and they really add to the atmosphere of the novel.
While American Elsewhere was generally underwhelming, there are glimpses of Bennett’s talent in it, and I’m still eagerly anticipating the future novels in his Founders series.
Coburn (the scientist, not the lab named after him) appears to be trapped in the dimension Mr. First and the others came from, but Mona seems to forget about this entirely. She makes no attempt to bring him back at the end of the book when she returns Parson and Mrs. Benjamin. Also, no explanation is given for why being stuck on the other side doesn’t have the same negative psychological effects on Coburn that the human inhabitants of Wink experience when they see Mother. Both of these things feel like plot holes.
I also didn’t like that Bolan, Dord, and Mallory die without really accomplishing much.