There's not a single myth of America, but many. The vastness of the North American continent inspires the authors that inhabit it—its weirdness and empty spaces as well as its grand monuments. Joseph Fink, one of the cocreators of the popular podcast Welcome to Nightvale and now the podcast fiction serial Alice Isn't Dead, seems drawn to the weird nooks that lie between the coasts, outside of the cities and cultural hot spots; the small places that lie "somewhere in the heart of somewhere else" (Episode 2: Alice). Unlike Nightvale, Alice Isn't Dead isn't set in one place, but many. Keisha, its narrator, is a trucker who crisscrosses the country for her company, Bay and Creek Shipping, delivering pallets of goods to factories and storefronts. Bay and Creek also employed her wife, the eponymous Alice, who disappeared some time before the story began.
"I thought you were dead, Alice," Keisha confesses. "I really did. I know that there was no evidence for it, but I couldn't think—I really couldn't think of another reason you would vanish like that. Just gone. Just . . . not you next to me in the mornings, or coughing before bed. The halo of warmth you made in the air around you, just air now." ("Episode 2: Alice")
Keisha narrates her adventures directly into her CB radio—with occasional breaks to sing along to Weezer or curse out motorists cutting her off. She directly addresses her absent wife as she travels to towns that seem to follow her around, or a factory by the sea with a single, rapidly aging worker, or the roadside diner where she first encounters the monstrous Thistle Man, her antagonist throughout the series.
The Thistle Man wears the shape and flesh, perhaps, of a human: one with jaundiced eyes and fingernails; teeth that aren't sharp enough to be fangs, but aren't harmless either; who wears a dirty polo shirt with the word "Thistle" on the breast. But the Thistle Man isn't a human, or even just a villain; he's a nightmarish figure at the nexus of a conspiracy. Keisha unfortunately gains his attention by accident in a roadside diner, where she tries to fend off his patronizing, creepy conversation. "Wanna see something funny?" he asks her.
The man with the yellow nails, his eyes were flat. Like a bad painting of a face. They both stared at me. And then the man with the yellow nails . . . he took a bite out of Earl. Tore out a chunk of flesh, right at the artery in his left armpit, and Earl began to bleed . . . The other thing, whatever it was (it was not a man), dug his fingers into the wound and pulled out bits of Earl the way he had picked up the egg, with the same flat movement, the nothing demeanor.
This was not a meal. This was not something that he had to do in order to survive. It was a demonstration. ("Episode 1: Omelet")
The attack is a brutal and clumsy display, meant to intimidate. And it does: the Thistle Man is terrifying. "Episode 3: Nothing to See" lives up to the trigger warning spoken at the beginning.
Keisha encounters the Thistle Man again and again, in the flesh as well as in the form of messages. In "Episode 5: Signs and Wonders," billboards line a highway in the South, inscribed with the names of the Thistle Man's victims; eventually, she finds Alice's name there as well. That's when Keisha finds another survivor of the Thistle Man and his ilk, a teenage hitchhiker named Sylvia. Sylvia inspires Keisha to start investigating the Thistle Man, digging into her history with Alice and trying to understand the connections between them all, and how it all ties together.
Keisha's final confrontation with the Thistle Man is explosive and satisfying; it's a marked contrast from her confrontation with Alice, which happens in the same episode. Their meeting is brief, and a little heartbreaking. Keisha and Alice have both come too far, covered too much distance, and uncovered too many secrets for an easy reconciliation. It might all seem a little too convenient, but rather than tying up the conspiracy in a neat bow, Keisha's final confrontation with Alice and the Thistle Man blows open the story, promising potential depths for future seasons. (One in which, it's hinted, we'll actually get to hear Alice's side of the story.)
Alice Isn't Dead is not a podcast for those who want a story plainly told, who want their fantasy grounded by prose that is written in disappearing ink. Fink's particular style of storytelling has a distinctive voice that blends the mundane and the miraculous. Keisha is by turns poetic and philosophical, though never passes a chance to keep it real:
It's a long way from Florida to Atlanta. And it is a desolate way. The landscape is constructed of billboards. There are no natural features, but the side of the road is a constant chatter, a one-sided conversation. Lots of anti-evolution stuff. All the truck stops being advertised have names like The Jade Palace or The Chinese Fan. Real racist fonts, too. Oh, God, and all of them with pictures of scantily-clad women and stuff about massages.
Ugh, this is the grossest stretch of road I have ever driven.
Lord, get me to Atlanta. ("Episode 5: Signs and Wonders")
It's a pleasure to listen to Keisha's observations and wonder as she moves through the countryside. Desert; mountains, the night sky; the great big flags of Texas; the unashamed adult stores of Kansas. Keisha is a delightful companion on this road trip, and Jasika Nicole, the actress who voices her, is more than up for the task of carrying the story. She's at ease voicing not just Keisha, but other characters we meet along the way: Sylvia, the teenage hitchhiker that's had her own encounters with the Thistle Man; the Thistle Man himself, who in Nicole's hands is all lazy menace, a patronizing drawl. The sound design varies from episode to episode. The squawks and static of the CB are a constant, as is the soundtrack produced by Disparition: the musical score echoes the landscape through which Keisha drives, rolling and gentle enough to be background. It rarely moves into the foreground of the narrative, and this rarity makes it much more effective.
Keisha confronts demons literal and figurative with a grieving determination. Her character arc—once kept from the truth by Alice, now determined to tear away her caul of protective lies—unfolds beautifully. She talks frankly about struggling with anxiety and the weight of her grief. She's not a Strong Female Character™; she defies the trope of the abandoned wife who moves easily from grief to cold revenge.
"Alice, I'm scared. You know that I get scared. It doesn't stop me from doing what I need to get done, but I'm scared pretty much all the time just of living. Of life. Of going on with the day-to-day. Now I've got invisible monsters hiding behind me. I'm all alone out here. Grassland out to the end of it. Nothing to see. I'll keep driving. What else is there?" ("Episode 3: Nothing to See")
Keisha embodies a particular form of resistance that is usually scarce in fiction. Most narratives of mental illness emphasize overcoming symptoms or sickness, becoming healthy again; as if perfect health, neurotypical behavior, and orderly emotions are a body's natural state, a homestead instead of a short-term lease. Keisha does not overcome her anxiety; she doesn't get over her grief. They are part of her, though they shift and change as she does.
Alice Isn't Dead is an evocative story that turns familiar tropes into something new and intriguingly strange. There are none of the familiar references that make Welcome to Nightvale so accessible. Keisha is lost on the margins of the known world, traveling through lonely territories populated with monsters that are both menacing and beautiful. We, the audience, are lost as well, but it's a pleasure to travel this strange journey.
Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago, and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Nino's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, In the Fray, Autostraddle, and Gozamos. One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.