{Book Review} Elaine By Ben Arzate

The novella may be the perfect length for horror. Short stories are fun because they burn fast, but often end without creating much in the way of emotional connection. Novels are nice but they run the risk of losing the overactive mind and underdeveloped attention span within today’s reader. This is why the perfect length is the novella, which is smack-dab in the middle. In roughly the same amount of time it takes to watch a movie, novellas burn fast without skimping on character connection or plot development. Elaine, written by Ben Arzate and published by Atlatl Press, is an excellent example of a good horror novella. 

Elaine has a nice mix of extreme and psychological horror with a hint of bizzaro. To me it felt like the opening chapter of Elaine exploded off the page and cracked me over the head with stainless steel nunchucks. As the taste of copper settled at the back of my throat and my eyes regained focus, my shocked and dazed mind seamlessly transitioned alongside the protagonist, Chris, as he boarded a train headed for the sleepy—and possibly unhinged—town of Elaine, Michigan. The change in pace certainly helped me regain my senses a bit, but the psychological terror that was to follow did nothing to ease my nerves.

Chris owns a record store in Iowa but plans to visit his girlfriend’s hometown for the first time to attend her mother’s funeral. Once Chris is on the train to meet Agnes (his girlfriend), the atmosphere shifts dramatically from in-your face-horror to subtle, psychological torment. Here is where Arzate does a great job of building suspense without stalling the story.

Once Chris is on the train nothing makes sense, yet there is just enough plausible deniability to prevent Chris from fleeing altogether. Even after he arrives, instead of calming his nerves, the town’s isolation dramatically enhances Chris’s personal demons. In fact, they present themselves every time he rests as sexually depraved dreams that leave him exhausted and questioning his sanity. 

To make matters worse, he gets ghosted by Agnes. Each step closer to finding Agnes only reveals more confusion and more questions as things start to spiral out of control. People disappear, then reappear, only to disappear again, yet no one in town seems to care; nearly every woman is named Elaine, but nobody ever noticed that before Chris pointed it out to them; the one road to town is completely blocked by construction, however, no one cares because no one—besides Chris—plans to ever leave; and finally, in addition to all the madness around town, there was a sadistic preacher on television that only enhanced Chris’ sinister sexual fantasies that threatened to destroy what little sanity he had remaining. 

This novella is certainly not for the faint of heart. While there are scenes with extreme carnage, it is the psycho/sexual element that may prove triggering for readers. Arzate uses something akin to verbal rope-a-dope throughout. Whenever I started to catch my breath and settle back into the story, Arzate would unleash another powerful blow that left my head fighting to restore its equilibrium. Each emotional and psychological blow unlocked another possible clue, which pushed me deeper into the story and reinforced my resolve to see this one through to the end. 

All this tension builds to a fantastic, yet controversial finish. Without having read any other reviews, I would be willing to bet a majority of them mention the ending. I am also confident that some love it, some hate it, and some have absolutely no idea what happened at the end. For me, the ending was perfect. The ending aligned perfectly with the story. Too often, dark, surreal, and chaotic stories somehow funnel into a perfectly ordered resolution. Even if that resolution is disturbing, I still feel cheated. Elaine, on the other hand, kept me thinking. In fact, I finished reading the book three days ago and I’ve revisited the final third of the book twice already, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Each time, I came away enjoying the ending even more. While Elaine is sure to generate split reactions, it was such a great blend of the off-beat, dark fiction that has become its publisher’s calling card, that I can’t wait to read more just like it. 

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