Tag Archives: Genre-bending

American Elsewhere

Mona Bright, ex-cop turned drifter, learns, years after her mother’s death, that she has inherited her mother’s house (which she didn’t know existed) and that it’s located in a town called Wink, New Mexico.  And as far as she can determine, Wink doesn’t exist.  Not on any map, and not as far as the people she asks knows, which only serves to make her ever more curious about her mother, her mother’s past, and why Wink is such a well-kept secret.

Already adrift in her life after the death of her unborn child, Mona is presented with a rare opportunity to learn the truth about her mother, who seemed to become a completely different person without reason nor cause, slowly, it seemed, submitting to a bizarre form of insanity.  Mona goes in search of her own past and hoping, in the process, to solve the riddle of her life.

Never has the cautionary adage of “be careful what you wish for” been more appropriate than in Mona’s case.  Because Wink, which may or may not exist in our current reality, is full of things that can drive any person lip-smacking, drool-spewing insane.  But the town also holds all the answers that Mona wants to—needs to—discover.  But what price is she willing pay?

Robert Jackson Bennett is a masterful l writer of unclassifiable fiction. Is American Elsewhere science fiction, fantasy, or  horror?    Is it a crime novel, a mystery, or satire?  Is it an allegory of insular life in small town America, a commentary on the intolerance of outsiders? A send-up of the illusory wholesomeness of small town life? Perhaps American Elsewhere is all of these things, and none of them.  Bennett’s prose style wavers between sparse and direct, never shying away from the gore and uglier elements that horror encompasses, while at other times tends toward hyperbole and over-expositing, with the potential of losing his readers through the lengthy trek of its 600-plus pages.

However, the individual elements make an excellent story, if the length isn’t too daunting for the average reader.  Horror blends well with science fiction, which blends well with the human drama woven throughout, which again blends well with the horror.  And while we’re shown the enemy and learn to despise them, we also invest in their pain because of how they’ve become that way.

At the center of it all, is Mona’s quest for truth.

Like the original Twilight Zone series, the story has an affinity for small towns and the monsters behind the masks.  When Mona begins to suspect that there’s a lot more going on, she wants to flee but instead gets sucked into learning everything she can.  Because somewhere in all that strangeness and bizarre discoveries is the mother she thought she knew and tried to love.

Mona herself, written as the protagonist, is difficult to invest in at first.  She’s standoffish, rebellious, and sarcastic.  Her role as a former police officer sometimes felt more like a convenience that was whipped out whenever it suited the plot.  Otherwise, she did not act or behave like a police officer, former or not.  There are sections where suspension of  disbelief is necessary, but the story is able to overcome those issues.

Bennett’s prose tends to meander in places and depicts confusing events, but once we choose to invest in the characters and their stories, there is a tremendous payoff.  To say that the ending is more than a little surprising would be an understatement.

With strong echoes of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub and Clive Barker, American Elsewhere may not be a traditional read, but it is thoroughly entertaining, and will like satisfy fans of dark fiction, horror and science fiction.

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Genre-Bending: When High Fantasy Becomes a Horror Story

I’ve been reading (and writing) a lot of horror lately. It’s kind of become my thing. So when I noticed by chance that one of my favorite fantasy trilogies, The Darwath Trilogy by Barbara Hambly), was available as an e-book, I bought it on a whim. Going back and re-reading these books that I haven’t even thought about in years has been more than just enjoyable, it’s been eye-opening. I have lost myself in the plot, gotten caught up in the suffering and joy of the characters, and become emotionally invested in their lives just like I did the first time I read them.

What’s different now (besides the fact that I’m older and supposedly wiser) is that experiencing this story anew, I’ve come to realize it’s not just a fantasy. Oh, there is magic, and good vs. evil, and sword-play. There is even a damsel in distress, until she realizes she is perfectly capable of saving herself. But this is also a horror story, and I never realized it before.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy, starting in my pre-teens. The Big Bad is usually an evil wizard/king/high-ranking royal underling/witch/spoiled but underappreciated heir…the list goes on. But my point is a lot of the time the antagonist is some variation of a human being. Then there are the beastly Bad Guys—dragons or goblins or other mythical monsters, even the magically-created or surviving villains like Sauron or Voldemort.

The main evil in this series, however, isn’t human (although there are those, too) and they aren’t your typical beastie. They’re called The Dark, mostly because sunlight and fire are deadly to them, and so for the most part they only come out at night. They don’t walk, not having legs per se, and they don’t fly as they don’t really have wings. They float through the air with the aid of their own incomprehensible and eldritch magic, with which they can cloak themselves almost to invisibility. They can change their size, from maybe the size of a small mammal, to as large as a house in a split second. They are soft and undulating with trailing tentacles reminiscent of jellyfish. Yet they have grasping claws and dripping acid. And between the space of one heartbeat and the next they can siphon the blood from a person’s veins, strip flesh from bones, or perhaps most horribly snatch the soul from the body leaving a mindless automaton behind.

When I read about The Dark and the descriptions of what they could do, and how callously, I was terrified! They look on human beings as cattle, neither knowing nor caring that the people they feed on are thinking, feeling creatures. Even now, years later, going back and re-reading this series, I get a chill from The Dark. Is it just because the author came up with a really good, scary villain? Or is it also that atavistic fear, handed down for millennia—that fear of what we can’t see but only sense? When the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and goosebumps skitter down your spine on dainty spider feet, is it all just your imagination? Or is there really something in the darkness looking back at you, waiting for the perfect moment to strike…?

In any case, I’ve come to the conclusion that genre is just a label, and sometimes an inadequate one at that. On the face of it, The Darwath Trilogy is a fantasy series perfect for a pre-teen to pick up and enjoy. However, underneath is all the darkness and horror someone like me could wish for.

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