The stories of Lorrie Moore have met the world of "The Simpsons," the "Halloween" franchise and "Mystery Science Theater 3000" — and then some — and the result is a beautifully strange, unexpected love-child: Nadine Darling’s debut novel "She Came From Beyond!"
Highbrow and lowbrow, it turns out, can coexist, often in delightful ways.
"She Came From Beyond!" is the story of Easy, the bombshell star of a cable access parody show, in which actors recreate sci-fi movies. She lives in Troubadour, Oregon, "the kind of town with no need for a functioning elementary school but which welcomed rival Fatty Arbuckle museums." Troubadour — and its eccentric, down-on-their-luck denizens — is reminiscent of Springfield, the town in "The Simpsons." Both Springfield and Troubadour seem to remain static while the rest of the world revolves around them; they’re at once surreal and entirely unexceptional.
"I’m fascinated with places where people don’t leave," Darling said in a recent phone interview. "Sad sack places. That’s where all the crazy stuff happens."
Darling, who is now in her late 30s and lives in Boston, spent her mid-20s in Medford, Oregon — a small city that very much inspired Troubadour. For Darling, living there was like a spiritual awakening.
"I don't really understand it on a lucid level," she says. "But I felt like everything about New York or San Francisco had already been said, or sung in a song. So it was special for me to be able to discover a place on my own … Medford is nondescript and kind of magical."
In Troubadour, several things coalesce for Easy: she buys a home, her show gets picked up by the Syfy network, and she meets a man online named Harrison. Harrison, it turns out, is married with children, and after Easy becomes pregnant with twins, she moves in with his family (which he's trying to distance himself from in the first place).
Here, in this mess of knotty domesticity, Darling shines. The literary influences she names — Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Elizabeth McCracken — are seen in her ability to craft characters that are as idiosyncratic as they are familiar. Easy, at the center of the novel, is the most memorable. She plays a ditz on TV but is by no means one off-screen. In fact, she’s blisteringly smart, and a little bit damaged.
"I was cute and drunk and my teeth hurt all the time, and I couldn’t figure out how you could miss a person you didn’t know," Easy recalls of a particularly low point in her life. "It seemed a cosmic jerk-off, a painful alien blip, their follow up to anal probing."
Easy and Harrison obsess over pop culture, the more obscure the better. (They met on an online entertainment message board.) The novel is stuffed with references to '80s B movies, Stephen King novels, cancelled TV shows, long-dead (but not forgotten) actors and actresses. To quantify these references would be futile. In many ways, this cultural miscellany forms the ethos of the book. When Easy mentions her Tom Selleck tray, or "Battlefield Earth," it’s not for ironic value: These things have meaning and matter.
"At first Harrison and I had nothing to say to each other that didn’t involve music, sex, or television. Or crossword puzzles on the Internet," Easy tells us. "Our relationship came out of the electrical ruins of that, in a sweet, astonishing way, until the TV was no longer necessary for us to be happy together."
Darling feels much the same. She says she lives in a "nearly detrimental" state of nostalgia for things like '90s TV shows and the "Halloween" movies.
"People always ask, 'Why is this stupid movie that no one cares about what you reach for as a reference?'" Darling says. "I think it's because a lot of my formative years were spent alongside these movies and shows. They meant something to me, and they still do."
As for the book's non-literary influences: " 'The Simpsons,' of course. 'Mystery Science Theater 3000.' Sketch comedy. John Carpenter films. Silent Hill [a video-game series]. Silent Hill finds its way into a lot of my work..." Darling says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, "She Came From Beyond!" feels at times so divorced from reality — so outlandish — it's as if Troubadour is its own planet, orbiting adjacent to our own. But no matter. The novel is something totally original, totally out of this world. It's like a cultural artifact delivered to us via meteor.
Matt Mullen studies at Emerson College and is an editorial assistant at Ploughshares, the literary journal.