Alice Isn’t Dead is the latest novel by Joseph Fink, adapting his podcast series of the same name. This novel marks Fink’s first solo outing as an author, usually teaming up with Jeffrey Cranor for the novels based on the podcast series they created together, Welcome to Night Vale.
The novel follows Keisha Taylor, a woman working as a trucker who is searching for her wife Alice, who went missing some time before Keisha started trucking. After months of searching and turning up nothing Alice was presumed dead. Keisha mourned and tried to work through her grief, until she started to notice something strange during news reports of tragedies and accidents across America: always in the background, never the focus, was Alice staring right into the camera. Alice wasn’t dead, and Keisha meant to find her wife, uncovering clues in Alice’s personal documents pointing to Bay and Creek Transportation. Following these leads further she embarks upon a road trip into a world that exists on the backroads and highways of the country full of misshapen creatures, otherworldly forces, and conspiracies that go well beyond a simple missing person.
As someone who listened to the podcast, which just ended this summer, it was hard for me not to compare the novel with it. Though marketed as a retelling, it is ostensibly the novelisation of the series, covering all three seasons. Each season is represented by a different “Part” in the novel. In streamlining the story for a new medium there’s a lot of content from the series that did not occur here. Most evidently were the more episodic outings Keisha had on her journey, wherein she encountered strange anomalies or people. There were some references to these, but they were kept separate from her journey in favour of keeping the focus on why Alice disappeared and the forces involved with that. I did miss the oddities from the series, but I also understand why their absence was necessary to keep the book from feeling bloated. That being said, I wouldn’t mind Fink expanding upon his ideas of strange places and encounters on lonely stretches of road in something new.
Keisha’s journey puts her in the path of “Thistle,” a collective of murderous, misshapen, formerly-human creatures who stalk the highways of America causing chaos and death in their wake. Asking about Alice attracts their attention, making Keisha’s more of a nightmare than she could have imagined. I really liked how Thistle embodied the threat of anonymous violence that comes from long distance travel. I know I often wonder if any strangers I encounter could mean me harm and these “Thistle Men” represent the most horrifying worst-case scenario. They’re also marvelously grotesque in how they’re described and behave so bizarrely that I couldn’t not love them. I especially liked the apparent leader of Thistle, who was a little too vague for my liking in the podcast. More insight into what she is, her history, and what she means to Thistle was provided, but not too much that it spoiled the mystique. A number of the small the details around Thistle, such as her, had a more refined quality that I appreciated.
One thing I still don’t entirely understand, however, is the significance put onto the first Thistle Man that Keisha encountered, who serves as the antagonist of the first part of the novel. After the revelation that there are numerous creatures like him there ceased to be anything special about him as an individual, yet he was treated by other characters with a certain level of importance that wasn’t explained. I get the sense that in the early phases of the podcast production Fink was coming up with things as he went along, at least somewhat, and this is an unfortunate side-effect that carried over from that without refinement.
Another thing that didn’t quite work for me was Keisha’s apparent anxiety disorder. It never really stuck out to me in the podcast series, though I recall points where it was discussed. In the novel it felt like I was constantly being told she has anxiety but never shown it. I can’t actually think of a single instance where it impacted her behaviour in a way that was significant to the plot or character development. It mostly served to highlight her bravery as a character, as the reader is continually told how terrified she is yet she continues to fight and push forward anyway. These traits were something I liked about her generally, but it makes for a fairly standard sentiment when it comes to bravery and heroics in storytelling (i.e. bravery as being afraid but standing your ground anyway, rather than feeling no fear at all). It was unfortunate because it seemed like she was somewhat propped up as being representation for the disorder, yet she doesn’t really represent the disorder, we’re just told she does.
What did work for me really well was Keisha as a character and her relationship with Alice. There was something very organic about the way the way their relationship developed in the flashbacks we see, what they mean to each other, and their little idiosyncrasies that I couldn’t help feeling a rush of sentiment. I had no trouble believing that, despite the sense of betrayal and hard feelings, Keisha loved Alice to her core. Keisha is such a strong-willed character too, in spite of herself, and I loved reading about her pushing herself with grim determination. She is very clearly a character who is trying to do what’s right, by the world and by herself, not because she wants to but because she has to—which is further why I’m disappointed the anxiety disorder did not work out for me as I feel it was intended. Alice felt more like an absence than a true character presence throughout most of it, but good little gems of characterization did shine through in her relationship with Keisha.
I like Alice Isn’t Dead in both of its iterations, but in each there was a little something missing for me that kept me from loving it through and through. In the case of the novel I think a lot of the ideas were well refined and the story was streamlined effectively, but having heard all the more intimate character moments, episodic adventures, and the slower-burn pace of the podcast I can’t help but see the novel as an abridgement of a greater journey, especially in its third part, which felt a little rushed towards its conclusion. Nevertheless, I do recommend it as a good horror thriller about otherworldly oddities on the backroads of America, everyday folk standing against the ills of the world, and a troubled relationship that at its heart is nothing but genuine love.
My rating: 3 out of 5