American Elsewhere: A Scattershot Horror Tome

By | September 21, 2022
American Elsewhere

American Elsewhere Suffers From Its Own Bloated Page Count

American Elsewhere resists review—because it’s massive. The paperback is 662 pages. That’s Stephen King tome levels. That’s epic fantasy size. The sheer amount of stuff in it doesn’t allow me to cover all its aspects. I’m not even going to try.

No, instead, I will tackle this overstuffed thing in chunks. It has four main ones: cosmic horror, science fiction, social commentary, and family melodrama.

Let’s start with cosmic horror. It’s done strongly for a long time until it isn’t. The unknown aspects of the plot get explained. You learn most of the rules, the general abilities, and even what most monsters look like by the end. The beginning scare is the best one because it’s both creative and still mysterious. Eventually, the horror becomes rote. “Madness,” extra dimensions, tentacle monsters, and God-beings all show up exactly how you’d expect. The Magnus Archives, The Nothing That Is, and even The Between all do more creative things with the same tropes. I would’ve written off American Elsewhere as generic if it wasn’t for all the other stuff around them.

Fortunately, the science fiction stuff makes up for a lot. It’s not revolutionary in scope, but the alien dimensions and pocket dimensions (yes, this book has both) make for interesting problems and solutions. It allows the book to have a pseudo-murder mystery plot alongside a “science has gone too far” experiment tale. I can’t say I’ve ever seen that done before.

But now, the praise gets thin on the ground as we get to the next section: the social commentary. The promise of mixing that with cosmic horror got me to read the book. What We Harvest proved how effective that mix can be. And American Elsewhere seemed to have a bone to pick with the white-picket fence, suburban idealism of yesteryears, and to a lesser extent now. A town full of monsters and gods trying to play wholesome neighbors (and being bad at it) is an incredible premise. The slight off-ness of everything, the curfew no one dares break, and other tiny details lent a sense of secret malice. A different, better book could’ve gone hard on this. Building to ultimate horror. Instead, American Elsewhere occasionally glanced at its golden premise before abandoning the conceit until a few late-game details. We get lip service towards dominating and malignant cultural practices, how they negatively affect LGBTQ+ people (and women in general), and the dangers of nostalgia and unexamined rituals, but none of it seems handled well. One of the first times it happens is so botched that I briefly worried American Elsewhere was being deliberately offensive. 

American Elsewhere Doesn’t Use Its Themes Well

American Elsewhere

You may have noticed I’ve yet to mention the main character. That’s because the one we have isn’t always around. The book is so long not only because it juggles topics but because it moves perspectives a lot. But when we pan back to Mona, our ex-cop character, we’ve got more issues. The first is a lot of unnecessary sexualization. The novel likes to tell us she’s attractive. It wants to inform us of this randomly. And then she’s almost sexually assaulted. So… yeah. I don’t blame you if that alone makes you not interested in reading the book. 

She’s also got that classic issue of being obviously written by a male writer. She’s an action star with the skills to make the plot go. Various things help in-universe justify this portion of her character, but it’s not enough to make it not irritating.

The actual character work instead comes from the cosmic horror monsters—yes, really. And it’s what forms our last section: family drama. Even Mona is dramatically improved as a character by her parallels to these creatures. Mona’s family plotlines go to dark topics (suicide, loss of a child, mental illness) that it’s not my place to weigh in on accurate representation, but it’s thematically coherent to the gods’ conflicts. The strongest compliment I have for American Elsewhere is how it handles its strange monsters as characters with effects on the world and each other. They’re unknowable things trying to act like retirees or quaint suburbanites. They could quickly kill anyone but want to serve people tea or build train sets. There’s a level of comedy, pathos, tragedy, and complicated family dynamics wrapped around the uncanny horror and dimensional weirdness. I don’t particularly appreciate how quickly their nature was demystified, but they are the stars of the show. They bounce off each other in fascinating ways and have the best-written dialog in the book. If we can’t have detailed commentary in American Elsewhere, at least more of this would’ve worked.

But we don’t. It’s all unfocused.I’ve failed to mention the creepily sexual subplot about a girl, her maybe-boyfriend, and her other romantic relationship with an elder god who is characterized as an older man. Or the late-game villain, and if the murder mystery is intriguing (it is). Or how the drug running crew is ultimately a distraction full of more problematic stuff. I didn’t even say that the book has a wild ending that at least ties up multiple plot points and has some strange monster designs. Though, in hindsight, it’s honestly a little underwhelming, given the number of pages it took to get there.

There are, for sure, nuggets of cool stuff in American Elsewhere. It understands how to make alien beings memorable and sometimes likable. It’s got individual moments of solid commentary, even if they are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them short. The prose is also breezy on a technical level, so you get to the interesting bits faster. But, again, it does most of that in the same breath as problematic issues, weak characterization for its humans, and rote tropes. If you like cosmic horror, even long-form cosmic horror, there are better places to get it. Probably even by this same author. 

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