A few thoughts about Robert Jackson Bennett’s rail-riding, dust-bowling, hobo-chasing, secret-mark-inscribing debut novel, Mr. Shivers.
Setting a literary horror novel in the Great Depression–and specifically in the Dust Bowl–is a clever thing to do. For one thing, your setting is custom-made. You’ve got towering clouds of dust blotting out the sun, you’ve got a barren, blasted landscape, you’ve got countless deserted hamlets isolated in vast expanses of total waste. I mean, have you seen photos of those dust storms? If that’s not the cover of a horror novel, I don’t know what is.
For another thing, you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people migrating desperately along the nation’s highways, looking for something–anything–better. (A situation more than a little reminiscent of another recent literary horror story of the American highway, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.) People are vulnerable, they’re traumatized, and they’re hungry. Drop an archetypal Death figure into the mix, and stir well: voila. Delicious, thoughtful horror results.
Bennett’s antihero, Connelly, is a man of the times–taciturn and hard-edged, albeit with a strict moral code and a few hints that once upon a time he wasn’t so grim. When we meet him he’s riding the rails west in pursuit of Mr. Shivers, the shadowy, quasi-supernatural figure who murdered his daughter. The railyard hobos have plenty of stories about Mr. Shivers, who’s a little bit Randall Flagg, a little bit Lucifer, a little bit Archetypal Death. Along the way, Connelly meets up with a gang of other travelers who are also intent on killing Shivers, though it remains an open question until very late in the day as to whether Shivers can be killed at all.
Bennett’s prose is spare, terse at times to the point of stripping his character–especially Connelly–of vivifying details. His point is clear: this is a moribund world, drained almost dry of any vestige of life, and not a word will be wasted in the telling. That said, the first third of the book is spent gathering the troops and establishing the rules of play, and it probably could have been tightened just a bit.
About two-thirds of the way in things start to pick up, with the gang of pursuers falling in with a series of increasingly archetypal figures: a sheriff who’s made a devilish trade with Shivers, a trio of crones in a deep forest, a village with a mysterious secret. The momentum carries Connelly and his bloody, ragged crew (or what’s left of them) up a mountainside for the climactic final scenes. Here, Bennett unleashes his style a little as Shivers gives Connelly a glimpse of what’s ahead: World War II, Hiroshima, and the vastly multiplied death and suffering of the second half of the century.
For me, the book’s roots are in Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman as much as in Steinbeck and McCarthy–or, for that matter, the Faust legend. It’s an absorbing, satisfying read with lots to offer both the literary- and genre-minded reader. Better still, the reader who reads with both minds at once–doesn’t everyone?