Tag Archives: Robert Jackson Bennett

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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Mr. Shivers

The Great Depression was a turning point in American—make that world—history. In the years prior to World War II, a series of events led to one of the lowest periods ever recorded. It was a blight, a plague upon the land and its people.

The landscape of the struggling nation was wounded and changing. Robert Jackson Bennett uses this period as the stage for his brilliantly dark debut, Mr. Shivers.

The novel follows Marcus Connelly, an uprooted man on a revenge-fueled quest for the man who murdered his little girl. Riding the rails and running with the hobo nation, he discovers many terrible things about his quarry, Mr. Shivers, also known as The Gray Man, the scarred man—his aliases are nearly as endless as the train cars that carry the transients from place to place. Connelly connects with a ragtag group of hobos, all on a similar quest for a similar result. They want to find and kill the man who has taken someone near and dear to each of them—Mr. Shivers.

Over the course of this 324-page novel, Connelly and his group meet varying obstacles. It appears that the villain they track is a little more than they bargained for. He has minions and cunning and skills that are a little more than natural. Guided by that ferocious beacon that is vengeance, our heroes follow him across a landscape so bleak and tragic it seems almost post-apocalyptic. Haunting and peppered with despair.

I will say that this is one of the strongest debuts I have read in some time. Bennett’s prose and use of language is fantastic. Poetic and downright lyrical, at times. I loved the details regarding the etiquette of hobo society and the starving beast that was America in the thirties. I was riveted the entire time, could not read fast enough, which is something I don’t often get to say.

The climax, while somewhat expected, was deftly handled and a good fit for the story. I suspect if Steinbeck had penned The Stand, it would have shared the same gritty feel as this novel. No higher praise than simply declaring Mr. Shivers a wonderful read.

Mr. Shivers, as well as Bennett’s follow-up, The Company Man, are both available from Orbit Books.

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