REVIEW: “Alice Isn’t Dead: A Novel” by Joseph Fink

coverI’ve been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, the podcast cocreated by Joseph Fink – author of this novel, Alice Isn’t Dead – and Jeffrey Cranor since around about 2013. It’s a lovely little podcast that perfectly mixes together a whole bunch of genres into its own little piece of brilliance. When it was announced that Fink and Cranor would launch an entire podcasting network, named “Night Vale Presents”, with a brand new podcast written by Joseph Fink, I was immediately interested. And then… I never got around to listening to it. It had a cool premise and seemed really intriguing and spooky, but I just never quite found the time. Then, it was announced earlier this year that Joseph Fink was going to turn that podcast, Alice Isn’t Dead, into a book that, essentially, told the same story as the podcast and I figured I’d just wait for the book to come out and experience the story in that medium. Months passed and I’ve now read the book and, I gotta tell ya, it’s really, really good.

From the New York Times bestselling co-author of It Devours! and Welcome to Night Vale comes a fast-paced thriller about a truck driver searching across America for the wife she had long assumed to be dead.

“This isn’t a story. It’s a road trip.”

Keisha Taylor lived a quiet life with her wife, Alice, until the day that Alice disappeared. After months of searching, presuming she was dead, Keisha held a funeral, mourned, and gradually tried to get on with her life. But that was before Keisha started to see her wife, again and again, in the background of news reports from all over America. Alice isn’t dead, and she is showing up at every major tragedy and accident in the country.

Following a line of clues, Keisha takes a job with a trucking company, Bay and Creek Transportation, and begins searching for Alice. She eventually stumbles on an otherworldly conflict being waged in the quiet corners of our nation’s highway system—uncovering a conspiracy that goes way beyond one missing woman.

Why did Alice disappear? What does she have to do with this secret war between inhuman killers? Why did the chicken cross the road? These questions, and many more will be answered in Alice Isn’t Dead.

Alice Isn’t Dead is a really good novel. It’s a really good horror book, a really good sci-fi/fantasy book, and a really good book about humans in general. Just from reading the plot summary, you might think this was a book all about some vast conspiracy involving the U.S. Government and a bunch of weird monsters. You’d be sort of right for thinking that, but it’s also about so much more. Underneath all the monsters and supernatural wars is a love story between a woman and her wife. It’s a story about losing someone you love, finding them, feeling betrayed, persevering against all odds, and coming together in order to save all you hold dear. It’s a deeply intimate story, even with the giant scope of the subject matter. And that’s what really makes this book something special. It’s a story about people caught up in this giant supernatural event.

It would be super easy to feel lost in a story like this had Fink not grounded it so well with such an immediately relatable main character. From the first time we encounter Keisha, on the first page of the novel, we immediately identify with her. Fink does such a great job at getting us into her head and making us feel what she feels. Her struggle with anxiety will be immediately identifiable to anyone else who’s struggled with it and the way she learns to cope with, and utilize, her anxiety is something that really resonates with me. Keisha is our window into this story and it’s (mainly) through her that we experience the events. We see what she sees and we feel what she feels. Sure, the narration often shows us other people and events outside of Keisha’s point of view, but it all ultimately comes back to her. Keisha, and her love for her wife (Alice), is what grounds this story. It’s their relationship that makes this story work. It doesn’t really matter who the Thistle Men are or why they do what they do because what we really care about is how Keisha and Alice will survive this story.

That’s not to say, however, that the mystery of who the Thistle Men are and who’s ultimately behind them and the supernatural war happening under the very nose of America isn’t important, fleshed out, and ultimately solved in a satisfying way. Because while the story is mainly about Keisha’s relationship with Alice and how it survives all that’s happened between them, it’s also about Keisha’s journey to uncovering the secrets behind the Thistle Men, Bay and Creek, and the war between the two. It’s a road trip story that takes Keisha all around America as she searches for answers: first as to where her wife is and later as to who is behind all of these strange and terrible events she’s witnessing. In a way, Alice Isn’t Dead reminds me a lot about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods in the best way possible. Both are books about these huge supernatural wars between two sides who seem to hate each other. Both feature resolutions that prove that things weren’t as they initially appeared. And both are largely road trip stories driven and revolving around a singular protagonist. Both novels use intimate stories about their main characters as the conduit to telling this larger story about supernatural wars. And both novels are superb.

I appreciate how this is a horror novel that doesn’t really relish in how scary it is. The way Fink describes the Thistle Men will make your skin crawl and give you nightmares on end, but he doesn’t linger with it. He tells you enough for you to get the picture and then moves on with the action. This isn’t a book full of “jump scares”; it’s a book that builds up its atmosphere and leaves you feeling like anything horrible could happen at any moment. It pumps you full of dread and fear for the main character. There are plenty of times where you really don’t know if Keisha and Alice are gonna make it out of these events alive. You hope they will, but you realize they might not. It’s a scary book that isn’t obsessed with being scary. It’s far more obsessed with exploring humanity. In the last third of the book, there’s a lot of good exploration about humanity in general; what makes a human good or bad. There’s this idea that we find it easy to call bad people monsters because it allows us to separate them from ourselves, to view them as un-human, as other. This book fights against that idea. At the end of the day, the scariest monsters are always humans.

It’s worth noting that while Alice Isn’t Dead is based on the podcast of the same name, this novel isn’t just a novelization of the podcast. Yes, both the podcast and this novel tell what is essentially the same story, but the way they respectively tell it differs. The novel condenses and tweaks a lot of the events that happen in the podcast into a more concise series of events and even goes so far as to skip over entire episodes of the podcast as to include them in the novel would, quite frankly, totally destroy the pacing and forward thrust of the narrative. The novel doesn’t differ from the podcast in what it doesn’t contain, but there’s also a whole lot of stuff added to the novel that isn’t in the podcast. There’s a lot you can do in novels, in terms of differing points of view, that you can’t really do in a podcast that’s being narrated from the point of view of a single character. So the novel features a ton of scenes that aren’t in the podcast or were just alluded to having happened at some point. Point is: there’s a lot in this book for fans of the podcast; it’s not just the exact same story you’ve already heard. It’s the same overall story but told in a different way with additions and changes and an entirely different feel.

Alice Isn’t Dead is a genuinely good book. It’s well written, featuring a number of dynamic, well-defined characters, each with clear motives and desires and agency. It’s got a really good mystery that’s ultimately resolved in a really satisfying way. It’s full of strong prose that ushers the story along at a good pace. It might take a little bit to get going, but once it does, you won’t want to put it down. It’s a horror book in the best sense of that term: it explores the darkness of the worst of humanity and contrasts it with the brightness of the best of it. It’s a story about love surviving in the worst of circumstances. It’s a story of two people finding each other and forgiving each other after a major betrayal. It’s a story about a woman coping with her anxiety and learning to use it to her advantage. It’s a story about survival and fighting to save what you hold dear. It’s an intimate story set against the backdrop of an epic one. If you enjoy scary stories about conspiracies, you’ll enjoy this. If you enjoy survival stories, you’ll enjoy this. If you enjoy stories of two lovers fighting for each other, you’ll enjoy this. This is a great book by a great author. Read it. You’ll enjoy it.

5 out of 5 wands.

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