Author Robert Jackson Bennett and the cover of his novel 'American… (Josh Brewster / Orbit Books )
The town of Wink, N.M., doesn't appear on any official map, the moon as seen from its streets has a pinkish hue, and very odd things lurk beneath the charm of its old-fashioned façade. The exact nature of those lurking things, human and otherwise, is chronicled by Shirley Jackson Award winner Robert Jackson Bennett in his at times horrifying and yet strangely beautiful new novel "American Elsewhere." The book remains ambiguous about whether we're reading supernatural fiction, science fiction, or fantasy for a long time but then delivers mind-blowing answers.
When Latina ex-cop Mona Bright inherits a house in Wink after the death of her estranged father, she embarks on an exploration of the town. The existence of the house, which belonged to her mother, Laura Alvarez, a long-ago suicide, makes Mona reevaluate everything she thought she knew about her past. She also learns to her surprise that Alvarez might have worked at the nearby Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory — abandoned after a terrifying lightning storm in the late 1970s that changed Wink forever.
It doesn't take long for Mona to realize Wink is no ordinary place. The hotel clerk Parson appears to be playing checkers against an invisible opponent and has an odd contraption in his basement. At a luncheon thrown by the town's court officer, the elderly Mrs. Benjamin, the host shows her a "weird magic trick" with two mirrors that seems to create impossible duplicates of real objects.
As the reader learns more about Mrs. Benjamin, other strange inhabitants and Wink's forbidden zones, a somewhat wry Bennett line like "It is hard to mistrust an old lady covered in mud" seems less funny than sinister. Because in Wink, you most definitely should mistrust old ladies, whether covered in mud or not.
You should also look askance at the veneer of normalcy. In a chilling scene, a housewife's high heels fill with blood as she stands for hours repetitively asking her husband, who is tinkering with the family car, if he wants lemonade. The husband works on his back under the car for so long that he develops bedsores — all the while mindlessly attaching toasters and other useless things to the engine.
These kinds of grotesque parodies of ordinary middle-class life provide a major clue about the forces that have taken over the town. As he roves between character viewpoints, Bennett's genius is in recognizing how such small yet startling moments add real pathos while also advancing the plot.
The slow discovery of the truth about Wink and the peculiar yet compelling portraits of the strange townsfolk are fascinating enough. But Mona's appearance in Wink signals that things are changing, possibly forever. Accelerating these changes are missions run by a bordello owner and drug runner named Bolan. He works for a blood-chilling invisible client who communicates, creepily, via a broken stock ticker and forces him to murder a supposedly immortal member of the community.
In the novel's most frightening scenes, Bolan's underlings also must retrieve "fleshless, bleached" rabbit skulls housed in little boxes so heavy that even strong men stagger from the weight. Worse, they might not be skulls at all but instead presage the arrival of an intruder who could devastate Wink.
Few novels about uncanny forces manage to sustain their initial intensity or to offer satisfying answers because it's hard for readers to suspend their disbelief of patently impossible things for so long. But to its credit, when "American Elsewhere" falters a bit toward the end it's not really about the quality of the revelations so much as the method of their presentation. By the time Mona comes close to unraveling Wink's secrets, the reader has already put together large pieces of the puzzle. So when one of Wink's inhuman residents, Mr. First, appears to Mona via a movie screen to explain a few things, there's not just a static quality to reading about Mona sitting there — we also already know part of what we're being told.
Once past these scenes, however, the novel rights itself and regains some of its former power. The ultimate showdown between various factions is truly titanic and unique; it lacks the personal, lived-in quality of the rest of the novel but makes up for it in scale.
"American Elsewhere" conjures up echoes of the best works of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Among its many virtues, Bennett's convincing portrayal of Mona may be his greatest accomplishment. This strong yet flawed woman drives the novel's success. When she pistol-whips a very large man, we feel both her competence and the weight of the act. During a tension-filled exploration of the eerie abandoned laboratory and observatory, we fully experience her fear and her levelheaded determination under duress.
In large part because of Mona, and despite a few hiccups, "American Elsewhere" manages to surprise, terrify and move the reader.
Robert Jackson Bennett
Orbit: 688 pp., $13.99 paper
VanderMeer's "Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction" will be published in October; his "Southern Reach" trilogy is forthcoming in 2014.