Depression-era America in the Dust Bowl must have seemed like living through the apocalypse. The very earth was drying up and blowing away. Nothing would grow and the rain never came. There was no food, families were disintegrating, and death stalked the land. This is the setting for Mr. Shivers, a first novel by Robert Jackson Bennett.
Upon reading the first several chapters of Mr. Shivers, one forms a mental image of the author: old and craggy, a face like a few miles of dirt road, hard and sad. It’s something of a shock to see the fresh-faced young man who gives a Mona Lisa smile from the book jacket. He looks more like a college student than like the cross between John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy one would suspect of having written this bleak prose. Indeed, Mr. Shivers is a book that mostly inhabits the real world, and only crosses over into dark fantasy in a major way in the last third. No wonder it’s classified by the Library of Congress merely as “fiction,” even while horror fans welcome this new voice.
Connelly is a bereaved father who seeks to avenge the death of his young daughter, a death that has all but destroyed his marriage as well as his heart. He knows what the murderer looks like: he is man with a strangely, grotesquely scarred face. Connelly quickly falls in with others who are looking for the same man, for essentially the same reason. Together, they move from Hooverville to hobo camp to riding the rails in pursuit of the scarred man, who always seems just a town or two ahead of them.
Along the way, they encounter many who are heading west to find a better life – or, barring that, at least paying work that will allow them to feed their families. Bennett portrays the depth of desperation of these folks, as in describing one extended family that spent the last of its ready cash on a few cars. It is almost immediately clear to Connelly that the dealer conned this desolate family into taking some of the worst vehicles on the road. Bennett shows us a key aspect of Connelly’s character in his charity to this family, as he fixes up the cars so that they can at least make it to the next town without a breakdown.
Indeed, Connelly often is kind and thoughtful to those he is traveling with, as well as those he meets along the way, which is why it is so shocking when he commits acts of incredible violence. Some of those acts are required by circumstances, but others seem unnecessarily cruel, and we start to wonder exactly who Connelly is.
Even more, we start to wonder who this scarred man he chases is. The man has left a trail of death behind him, but it is never clear exactly how he killed his victims, or why. When Connelly finally meets up with the man, he asks why the man killed his daughter; the scarred man replies, “So she would be dead.” This chilling answer is a key to our understanding of the fundamental nature of Connelly and the scarred man, and it is here that we find ourselves in the horrifying territory of a struggle that is not only one of life and death for two men, but for all humankind.
Bennett is masterful at creating atmosphere. The book is permeated with brown – the brown of dust in the air, the brown of the naked earth of the Hoovervilles, the brown of clothing worn too long and too hard. It is brown, not black, that is the color of death in this book, the brown of an earth that refuses to let anything grow any longer, the brown of a world with no rain.
Bennett is also skillful with dialogue. You can hear the voices in your head, from the old man Connelly meets early on who tells him to go home to the scarred man himself, who speaks as plainly about his task on Earth as anyone could.
If Bennett’s plot is ultimately entirely predictable, well, that is the nature of writing about mythological figures. Even as one hears the echoes of Stephen King’s DARK TOWER sequence in the events of Mr. Shivers (Connelly is the gunslinger, the scarred man the man in black), it is evident that Bennett is trying to say something new about his themes. His ending is frightening and sad. And true.
~Terry Weyna (2011)
After reading American Elsewhere earlier this year (my review), and after tons of glowing recommendations for The Troupe by people whose tastes I trust implicitly, I resolved to read everything Robert Jackson Bennett has written. Because I am somewhat obsessive about these things, I decided to read his books in order of publication, so I started out with Mr. Shivers, a book I’d maybe not have picked up elsewise because it’s billed more as horror than fantasy.
But then, what do I discover? It’s set during the Great Depression. Dear reader: I’ll read almost anything set during the Great Depression, particularly if it also touches on the Prohibition. It’s an endlessly fascinating period in US history for me, for reasons I won’t go into here lest this mini-review turn into a rambly-review.
What’s fascinating to me is that Bennett has managed to infuse the familiar landscape of the 1930s Dust Bowl with a timeless quality. It’s at the same time recognizable and, somehow, more portentous: the setting is integral and specific to the story, but it also casts shadows that reach farther than just the Dirty Thirties. “They lived in a dead and dying age,” it says in Chapter Twenty-Four, and, as it turns out, that could be any dead and dying age, not just this specific one. The dust and haze are everywhere, the clothes are grey and nondescript, the towns could be any town.
The characters take a while to resolve into fully fleshed-out figures, too. That dust really gets everywhere, doesn’t it? Our main character is Connelly, an everyman who has been drifting since something as yet undefined happened to his young daughter. He’s out for revenge, looking for the empty-souled monster man who broke his life: the scarred man, the bogey man. Mr. Shivers, some people call him.
Connelly meets others who are also on the hunt. They become part of the army of the displaced, unemployed hobos who jump train cars and camp out on the edges of towns. They’re a reticent bunch, closed up and reclusive. “You two are terrible conversationalists,” one of them tells the others, and it’s true: it takes a good long while to get a handle on who these people are, which may be the only real weakness this novel has.
They’re thrown together by fate and need, much more than desire. They’re in Big Sky country, and even if the horizon is frequently closer than it should be due to the dust storms, you can initially almost feel the weight of the environment and the mission pressing them right off the stage. Still, as the story progresses, they each acquire their own back story, their own motivation, and depth.
If the setting’s what pulled me into the novel, Robert Jackson Bennett’s spectacular prose is what sold me:
They took up upon an old county road. As they walked they kicked up a cloud of dust that rose to their faces, turning their soot-gray clothes to raw red. The land on either side was patched like a stray’s coat, the hills dotted with corn lying flat as though it had been laid low by some blast. Roots lay half submerged in the loose soil, fine curling tendrils grasping at nothing. In some places growth still clung to the earth and men grouped around these spots to pump life into their crop. As Connelly passed they looked up with frightened, brittle eyes and he knew it would not last.
Really, read that again. Each sentence works perfectly, each image is meaningful. It’s one of the most concise and poetic summations of life in the Dust Bowl I’ve read. This was on page 3 in my paperback edition. How can you not keep reading after something like that?
The story is a journey in a sense more than one, a chaotic road trip (though mostly taken by foot) that leads its characters not just to a new destination but also to a new awareness. The hobo signs shown at the start of each chapter (and on the paperback edition’s cover) take on an ancient, ritualistic, runic feel. As Connelly says, later in the novel:
With each step he had taken he had moved away from torpid slumber, from the complacent dream-world of home, and instead had approached the visceral savagery whose wax and wane formed the heartbeat of creation.
Again, a sentence that works on several levels, as it becomes clear that Mr. Shivers is maybe not your average psychopath. I can’t be the only one who immediately thought “Shiva” when seeing that name on the cover, right? Turns out that that timeless quality of the landscape I mentioned earlier wasn’t entirely coincidental. It’s happened before. It will happen again.
Casual hints are strewn through the story, maybe none more meaningful than a throwaway reference to the title character as the “Mithras-man” at the end of Chapter Eighteen. If this leads you to a few hours of hazy research, like it did with me, some details towards the end of the story may have more resonance, but it’s really not necessary to appreciate this novel. (It also may explain why it sometimes takes me so long to get around to reviewing certain novels.)
So. Mr. Shivers is a dark, gripping tale full of beautiful prose and genuine, effective creepiness. It’s a period piece that transcends its period. It has the timeless quality of the “carnival in hell” atmosphere of certain Tom Waits songs. It amplifies the idea of the Great Depression to a surprising degree, lending it a much fiercer impact than the average American Gothic novel. The characters are a bit apersonal early on, which may turn some readers off, but for me the atmosphere of the setting was more than enough to carry me through. This is an excellent debut novel – a smaller scale story than American Elsewhere (in some ways, at least), but great nonetheless. I hope to get to The Company Man and The Troupe soon.
~Stefan Raets (2013)