The story begins as we find a pair of mutilated corpses. A young man and woman have been left behind in a grisly murder scene. It’s effective as it takes place deep in the woods, the sense of danger and isolation is effectively established. We meet our protagonist, Chris, who needs to leave town to visit his girlfriend Agnes, whose mother has died. Agnes lives in a small town named Elaine. Elaine is so isolated that there is only one road that leads into it, but unfortunately, the road is cut off due to construction, and the only way to get there is by train. Once he arrives, however, he is unable to find Agnes anywhere. Agnes’s father also doesn’t seem to know where she is. As a result, Chris is left to his own devices and little by little he begins to uncover unsettling details. Elaine is a very small hideaway of a village where all the women share the same name, and a crazy pastor seems to have some sort of sway over the people. There is a sense of “otherness” about everything, even before Chris leaves the train. I could expound more on the story, but this is a story where one detail lends itself to another, and the less I unravel for you, the better.
Ben Arzate’s Elaine is a folk horror novella that seems to have its footing in pulp tradition to a degree. There are many moments of the book that remind me of the small, salacious paperbacks I used to seek out in thrift stores. It has a lot going for it, including an overall uneasiness that comes through in the small details that reveal themselves as the story progresses. The book’s weaknesses also lend some strength to the story, as there are many important details that are simply left out or glossed over that provide that sense of unknowing. For example, there are many flashbacks regarding Chris’s relationship with his sister which are pretty much left unexplored, but it is his reactions to these memories that whittle a hole into our sympathy for him. What role does Chris really play in Elaine? Arzate does not dwell on it, and ends the novella on an abrupt note. The ending is a frustrating one as our need for closure is innate, but at the same time allows for the mysteries of the small town of Elaine to remain impenetrable. In the end, we know as much as Chris knows.
Overall I do feel that Elaine is a very good effort with a decent amount of atmosphere. It has many nice touches, such as Arzate providing a “soundtrack” along the way, which at first glance may give the book a bit of a “hipster” gloss, but at the same time enhances the musicophile nature of the protagonist. Chris is a record store owner, so it is nice that such details are present throughout. The music itself acts more like a playlist, something that Chris listens to as the book goes along. The music in this book is “diegetic,” but perhaps if the music were to be more incorporated into the narrative itself, a more “metadiegetic” approach could add greater strength. The book also has some elements that come off as a little silly, perhaps due to the book’s “running time.” Chris’s masturbatory fantasies come a bit too frequently, and as a result we also end up with many instances of internal monologue that result in “What the hell is wrong with me?” styled dialogue. The lack of detail in some aspects leaves some missed opportunities, such as the details that emerge when Chris is called “Crissy”; it brings a bit of an interesting backstory, but does not get fleshed out beyond a page or two. Another thing is that Chris comes from one small town into another, so the “fish out of water” aspect gets a little lost. In the end, however, Ben Arzate has created a piece that I think he’s thrown bits of himself into and that is something I appreciate to a great deal. It’s not perfect, but it’s strong enough to warrant revisiting at some point.
Elaine was released by Atlatl Press, and you can find it @ Amazon HERE.
Find more from Ben Arzate @ his website https://dripdropdripdropdripdrop.blogspot.com/
RUDE PLANET readers, we now have an ongoing video series on YOUTUBE titled Low Tide! You can easily find our channel @ http://lowtide.live. Please LIKE & SUBSCRIBE!