2016’s urban fantasy Stay Crazy is Erika L. Satifka’s debut novel.
Emmeline “Em” Kalberg has experienced a college-ending mental breakdown. She returns home to Clear Falls, Pennsylvania, where she struggles with what is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. She must also deal with her disappointed mother and her newly devout, very judgmental sister Jackie.
Clear Falls is the quintessential Rust Belt community: independent businesses a fading memory, giant soulless big-box stores offering shabby goods and shabbier jobs to the defeated inhabitants of a once-prosperous town. No big-box store is more soulless than Savertown USA. Of course, it’s at Savertown USA that Em’s mother finds the reluctant Em a job.
It’s a crappy job that pays poorly, but at least Em has voices in her head to keep her company. Well, at least one voice.
Escodex insists he is not just an auditory hallucination; he is a higher-order entity that puny human senses cannot detect. He and his entire dimension face invasion by an aggressive criminal entity. The key to the invasion is the dimensional weak-spot around which the Clear Falls Savertown was built. It’s there that the last stand has to be made. Since Escodex cannot manifest in our realm, he needs a local
patsyally. There is not much time: even now the enemy is feasting on the life force of Savertown’s employees, gathering the resources it needs. Once it has fed, both Em’s and Escodex’s dimensions face destruction.
Despite her understandable reluctance to believe that Escodex is real, Em offers the entity a unique opportunity. She’s not yet under the thrall of Escodex’s enemy.
As for Em … she may be slow to take Escodex at face value, but there’s some support for the hypothesis that he is real. Another employee is hearing Escodex. Roger attributes this to schizophrenia. Perhap Em would do so as well, but Escodex is offering her something she very much wants: information about her father, who vanished years ago.
So what is Escodex’s game plan? He lets Em know behind whose unfortunate eyes the enemy is hiding: habitual employee-of-the-month Agnes Wagner. Escodex and Em have a grudging ally in Roger, more because he sympathizes with a fellow schizophrenic than because he is willing to save two worlds. Finally, Escodex gives Em a design for an exotic weapon that will vanquish the enemy.
What Em doesn’t have is any reason to think her world is worth saving.
Wow, Escodex is a monumental dick. It really makes me question the wisdom of taking advice from disembodied entities who have a lot to lose if they cannot convince a human catspaw to work for them.
Clear Falls’ dire straits are a familiar story. Anyone with saleable skills migrates to larger cities, leaving behind those trapped by poor health and lack of education. There is no economic base save skimpy government support payments and the meagre wages the locals can make at places like Savertown. Plus there’s the whole suicide epidemic that is being driven by the evil monster that’s feeding on their souls. The only bright note is that this is (probably) set in the recent past, so at least Trump isn’t President. Yet.
Mentally unstable protagonists offer authors an easy way to keep the audience unsure as to whether what seems to be going on is what’s actually going on. Also, they offer an even easier way to for authors to treat their protagonists in a shallow, exploitative way. Satifka avoids that trap: Em is a rounded character. She may be an unreliable observer but she’s not a caricature.
Similarly, Clear Falls is not just some Lovecraftian hellhole filled with inbreeding, unspeakable horror and Republicans. We see its inhabitants from Em’s point of view. Since she tends to see the people around her in the worst possible light, they come off pretty badly. Between the lines, it is clear that Em is misjudging her fellow prisoners in the American system as badly as she does her shiny new boyfriend: Roger may be creepy but he genuinely wants to use his experiences to make Em’s struggle easier. Her doctor may be patronizing but he’s not incorrect to point out warning signs. Even Agnes, victim of a Thing from Beyond Space, has hidden depths. Other authors should take note.
Stay Crazy is available here.