February 11th, 2011


Mr. Shivers

One of the most interesting horror debuts in recent years, Robert Jackson Bennett's Mr. Shivers was likened by PW to "a collaboration between Stephen King and John Steinbeck." There's some validity to that. Set during the westward migration of the Great Depression, much like Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, this carefully paced thriller centers around Connelly, a man whose daughter has been killed by a scar-faced stranger known Shivers, or sometimes the gray man. Determined to get revenge, he follows Shivers across the country on the rails, meeting up with other hobos who've heard stories of the same man. If he is a man at all.

One of the most interesting things about the novel, to me at least, is how the first half is almost entirely taken up with stories about this killer. Everyone's heard of him. Everyone's lost someone to him. The stories mount and grow in mythological richness, and as they do, so does the novel, losing its Depression-era realism and replacing it with imagery that's more surreal, more darkly fantastic, more--and I suspect this is Bennett's point--pagan. Where the first part of the book offers a carnival fortune-teller, the second produces a swamp house of honest to goodness witches, sister-fates, Elder Gods in human guise--three of them awake, the fourth lying dreaming as she always does. Where the first half of the novel finds Connelly's group meeting other bands of hobos on the road, families and neighbors looking to find better lives out west, the second half features whole towns bent to Shivers' will, pagan signs and animal sacrifices and the night sky come alive. This slow build is the novel's genius, in my opinion. I'm reluctant to say more about where this journey leads for fear of robbing the joy of discovery from other readers, but I will say the ending is earned, and earned beautifully.

As much as I liked Mr. Shivers, though, it's not a light read or a page-turner. If you're looking for the usual "hero returns to small hometown to face ancient evil" horror formula, this book isn't for you. It requires your full attention, and is more than simply entertainment for entertainment's sake. I can't pretend to know what's in the author's mind, but Mr. Shivers strikes me as a deeply humanistic work, a railing against not just death but society's inexorable march toward bigger and more efficient ways of killing each other. Something is close, Bennett tells us in the epilogue; something is near, and if we're not careful, this violence, this death we inflict upon each other, will open wide its scarred mouth and swallow the world whole.