Wednesday 2 October 2013

American Elsewhere

(September 2013)

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you.

I was trawling around for other people’s reviews of Servant of the Underworld not so long ago, and a ran across a fairly equivocal one which claimed that, for all the undoubted novelty of the world and skill in crafting it, having unresolved issues with mommy and daddy was a pretty unoriginal hook off of which to hang the emotional side of the story. If you were being uncharitable you could level the same accusations here. But why would you want to be uncharitable when it has so much else going for it?

This is the second 500+ page novel I’ve read in fairly quick succession, and while the difficulties I have enjoying longer works haven’t gone away overnight I have been reminded of the joys of getting lost in something that you know is going to last longer than a couple of train rides. And getting lost is exactly what you do, following ex-cop Mona Bright as she attempts to claim her true inheritance in a town that doesn’t appear on any maps and is neither here, nor ever really there.

The town’s called Wink, and is a seemingly perfect slice of the American Dream, so of course you just know there’s going to be at least one horrifically dark secret festering at its core; them’s just the breaks. Oh, and there’s also an abandoned lab on the town’s outskirts and an awful incident a couple of decades ago that no-one likes to talk about. How long will it take our protagonist with the disconcertingly stripperific name to work out what’s really going on?

I’m being more flippant that this book deserves. The creepy offness of Wink is very well done – all your small-town paranoia underscored with the definite knowledge that the things that go bump in the night aren’t just figments of your imagination. The pacing contributes to this, I think. The reader is privy to information that Mona is not, so right up until the very end she’s playing catch-up. That’s a swings-and-roundabouts decision because it makes everything that little bit creepier and more sinister, but paradoxically less tense. You know nothing too awful is going to happen to her before she knows what you know, and because you always know just a little bit more she’s never really in danger.

But it really is creepy and sinister. How many ways can one town be just plain wrong? The grass is too green, the booze is too strong, and the moon is too pink. There’s also the most terrifying rabbit costume since Donny Darko (something of a tribute that, I feel, given the temporally unhinged nature of both works), and the most horrifying account of inept automobile maintenance I have ever been exposed to. About halfway through there’s a marked gear shift and the atmosphere makes way for plot and guns and fights and lots and lots of lightning. And blood and fire. And mommy issues.

If you weren’t getting pulled along by the mood and the tentacles and the family squabbles, you could frame this as a fairly unsubtle satire on the Snowden revelations. Well, the tentacles and the fact this was released a good few months before all that hit the fan. What, as a society, are we willing to sacrifice for the appearance of happiness? How much do we want to leave in the trust of the more powerful while we look the other way and pour ourselves another drink? If you’ve convinced yourselves everything is perfect at home, even when it’s manifestly not, why would you care if you were dissuaded from ever leaving?

So you could take this as Lovecraftian horror. You could take it as domestic tragedy. You could take it as science fiction or American gothic or retro Cold War paranoia or any and all of the above. But as a scarily prescient satire of the surveillance society and abuse of power? Hell yes. It’s even got Big Brother and his own sinister little room.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.


  1. I've read a few reviews of this, all of them positive. Also, I'm glad there are tentacles. Everything is better with tentacles.