Alice Isn’t Dead Sees Monsters on the Highways

Alice Isn’t Dead

Joseph Fink
Harper Perennial
October 30, 2018

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Alice Isn’t Dead starts with a warning. “This isn’t a story. It’s a road trip,” it begins. Then it poses a familiar question: Why did the chicken cross the road? The answer is a surreal stream of non-sequiturs, more koan than punchline, ending with the ominous statement: “Because the dead return.”

So opens an equally cryptic narrative about America as seen through the eyes of two women, one who returns from the dead and one who takes up long-distance truck driving in a quest to find her. Their cross-country travel is filled with wry, unflinching observations of America writ large and small. But when the highways grow dark, nightmarish interludes interject to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Alice Isn’t Dead thus serves as a straightforward horror on one level, and on another as a critique of the country in which this story—or rather, this road trip—takes place.

Book cover for Alice Isn't Dead

This book began in the form of a podcast written by Joseph Fink, co-creator of Welcome to Night Vale, but he is quick to reassure fans that it is neither script nor transcription but a standalone reimagining. As a longtime listener, I can confirm that the book and podcast don’t tell the exact same story, but the characters and overall plot stay true. After the book’s enigmatic introduction, we meet Keisha, a woman at the end of her rope—understandably so, since she’s just found evidence that her wife Alice is alive after having been missing (and presumed dead) for years. Keisha is anxious, and pissed off, and lowkey funny in the way you can be if those two states are fighting for dominance in your brain. She’s uprooted her life in order to drive trucks for a shipping company, Bay & Creek, to which Alice was somehow connected. And she’s about to stumble onto not only the reason for Alice’s disappearance, but a country-wide conspiracy with darkness at its center—a darkness that breeds monsters.

Horror fans will repress an appreciative shudder at the monster Keisha encounters in the very first pages of Alice Isn’t Dead. Dubbed the Thistle Man, he is a shambling sack of flesh with yellow teeth and a hunger to sink them into people’s necks. What he wants and why he starts following Keisha are initially unknown, but his appearance quickly derails her main objective of finding Alice. Instead, Keisha is drawn into a mystery she’s unwilling to solve, until it becomes apparent that the Thistle Man and Alice are linked by Bay & Creek Shipping, through a connection that goes way farther than coincidence.

Keisha runs into supernatural creatures good and bad on her road trip, but the Thistle Man stands out as the first and the scariest. Driving across America, looking for answers, Keisha finds evidence that the Thistle Man is actually a group of Thistle Men; the first one she meets is not the only hungry abomination stalking the highways, taking bites out of people like Pennywise from IT. But she also finds secretive forces on the road dealing with these monsters—some fighting against the Thistle Men, and others hard at work keeping them under wraps, tacitly supporting their continued existence.

This would be enough for a straightforward campfire story, but the book takes an interesting turn when it explains the origin of its monsters. Unlike Stephen King, whose works like to depict a demonic cosmic horror at the root of all small-town evil, Fink flips that concept on its head: the evil at the root of America is what creates these Thistle Men. They only begin to exist after normal people spend enough time hating others, enacting violence, and letting the freedom of cruelty run rampant. The Thistle Man’s origin story is no ham-handed metaphor, no supernatural excuse for human nature. Simply put, it’s the worst parts of US history—from slavery to Native genocide to anti-Semitism—given a face.

You can feel the anger at America radiating off these pages. Bad things happen here; bad things have happened here, the whole place was built on them. But nobody wants to talk about it. Bystanders in Alice Isn’t Dead witness the atrocities of the Thistle Man, but they choose to look away—it’s safer that way, at least for them. Despite Keisha’s pleas to take notice, no real progress in the fight can be made until people on the ground make up their minds to start confronting the evil they’ve been ignoring. It is by looking danger in the face, linking arms, and standing to fight against it that change happens. That is the message, more or less, that Alice Isn’t Dead wants us to take away.

A map of the United States with illustrations of the people and settings Keisha encounters during her trip. Artwork by Dave Watt

And with the cacogenesis of the Thistle Man, or the Thistle Men, established, there is also its opposite: the idea that if enough people do good, fight evil, and love each other, there will rise an opposing force of equal strength. An avenging angel of America. True to the book’s philosophy, this idea is both a commentary on society today and a literal force of good that comes to aid Keisha—later Keisha and Alice—in their battle. Keisha and her allies know that even with supernatural assistance, they’re outnumbered and overpowered, but they’re determined to make some difference anyway.

It’s telling that this good-versus-evil conflict starts with a woman’s simple desire to find the love of her life. We see Keisha and Alice’s relationship develop from its inception to Alice’s disappearance to Keisha finding her again. Key to their romance is the urge to protect each other, to find safety in each other’s arms. When Alice betrays that sense of safety by disappearing, Keisha’s loss is keenly felt, and when they reunite it doesn’t come with a neat fix. Fink makes sure not to skip over the emotional reckoning that must occur before Keisha’s hurt is healed. But even when in conflict, Alice and Keisha are united against the Thistle Men, which ends up bringing them together stronger than before. Troubled though their relationship may be, Keisha and Alice share a fiercely protective devotion to each other, and that same feeling motivates them to become warriors against the powers trying to tear them and the rest of humanity apart.

From the moment we first see Keisha in a dingy roadside diner to her confrontation with the leaders of Bay & Creek, and after, the narration in Alice Isn’t Dead sticks to short, terse sentences, like transmissions on the CB radio Keisha talks into throughout her truck-bound journey. In parts, this feels appropriate: the staccato works well to illustrate Keisha’s anxiety. Her mind takes in sights in quick bursts, jumping from subject to subject like her panicky heartbeat. Over long stretches, though, this style takes on the monotonous rhythm of a long-distance road trip: it’s the same thing over and over, with no change in sight. The dry, warm voice of Jasika Nicole lends these stylistic choices a softer cast in the podcast. If you’re like me, and love hearing her talk, you might prefer to hear the novel in audiobook format instead.

Fink’s approach to the book diverges from the podcast in another major way: perspective. While Keisha narrates the podcast in the first person, the book is written in third. In some ways, this gives us more information about the characters; for example, Keisha’s name is on the very first page, whereas it didn’t show up in the podcast until the first season finale. With the perspective change, however, comes a certain lack of close characterization. Fink loves weaving real-life detail into the settings Keisha visits (the book owes a lot of credit to his time touring the United States for WTNV live shows), but Keisha herself is sometimes frustratingly blank. We see the things that have happened to her, including small, sweet moments with her and Alice: cooking meals together, dealing with Keisha’s father dying, and the first time they say the words “I love you.” But there’s less focus on any beloved quirks or hidden facets of Keisha’s personality. So much of the narration seems to point at what you can see outside the cab window that it forgets to touch on the person driving the truck. That’s a shame, because from the sketch of Keisha we see on the page, she’s a character worth fleshing out in more detail.

One aspect of Keisha’s character—her anxiety—does get the attention it deserves. Alice Isn’t Dead is upfront about Keisha’s struggle with mental health. She experiences anxiety, at some level, constantly, and has since before the start of the book. This portrayal isn’t without lighthearted moments; when Keisha meets an unexpected ally who is also struggling, they start greeting each other as “anxiety bros.” But Fink really delves into how it feels for Keisha to fight this low-grade fear at the same time as she’s fighting legitimately frightening things: cannibalistic shambling monsters, threats to have her arms torn off, and worse. This lends itself to both realistic representation and writing device. A character with anxiety fits perfectly into a horror setting because when we hear and see and feel Keisha’s fear, the events of the book become more frightening for us as well.

Sometimes, however, Alice Isn’t Dead veers close to portraying anxiety as a disability superpower. At one point, the panic Keisha feels at being cornered by an enemy transforms into the resolve she needs to fight back. The same anxiety that was disabling before now grants her a deadly strength enough to overcome an opponent who can literally eat her alive. While I love seeing anxiety treated with honesty and compassion, this scenario stretches suspension of disbelief. At the same time, though, I can see why it’s an appealing fantasy. If your brain is constantly telling you the worst is going to happen, and then it does, then you at least know your fear was justified. That means that whatever happens next, you’re not going in totally unprepared. By the end of the book, it’s clear that Keisha’s anxiety is not another monster she must battle, but a part of her, one that only wants to keep her safe.

With its commentary on America’s ills and its sometimes dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish exploration of how those troubles might manifest as demons or angels, Alice Isn’t Dead walks the line between horror and love story. Centering this story on Keisha—whose struggles and heartache feel as real as any of the American towns she drives through—makes the book satisfying on every level. Most importantly, Alice Isn’t Dead doesn’t just cast light on what’s wrong, but proposes a way to fix it. It turns an enigmatic riddle at the start of the book into a meditation on how to understand what happens next, and shows us why it matters by giving us a character we’re rooting for throughout her journey to get to the other side.