In the Shadows of Men: The ghosts are the least horrific element here

In the Shadows of Men by Robert Jackson BennettIn the Shadows of Men by Robert Jackson Bennett

In the Shadows of Men by Robert Jackson BennettRobert Jackson Bennett has become one of my must-read authors, a view arising from his brilliant DIVINE CITIES trilogy and only confirmed by his nearly as brilliant THE FOUNDERS TRILOGY. Both are fantasy works, but Bennett also turns his craft toward horror as well, and that craft is indeed evident in his newest novella, In the Shadows of Men (2020), a taut, concise work that unnerves in more ways than one.

The brothers Pugh — one our unnamed narrator, the other his older brother Bear — are near the end of their line. For the youngest, it’s been “thirty-nine days since my wife left and she packed our little girl into her car and said she couldn’t stand it anymore, she just wanted to go someplace where everything wasn’t ugly all the time.” Bear, meanwhile, is trying to right his own life after his battles with addiction. His method? Buy an isolated old motel in the heart of fracking land in West Texas, one owned by their dad’s uncle Corbin Pugh, fix it up, and make some relatively easy money while the oil boom is still going.

Now, “isolated old hotel off the freeway” is never a good harbinger. Nor, usually, is “strange old relative one’s never heard of.” And sure enough, it turns out there’s more to the motel’s story than they know. A local sheriff informs them of some of that backstory, and rest gets filled in or hinted at through the usual supernatural occurrences: strange noises, ominous figures appearing and disappearing, hidden objects, and the like. And soon our narrator and his brother find themselves fighting against a “horror” that threatens to swamp their lives.

Bennett is working with the standard horror tool kit here, but in genre, I’ve often said it isn’t whether or not an author uses tropes but how they present them and what they do with them. And, as can be expected from an author as good as Bennett, both are handled in impressive fashion. From a writing standpoint, the creepy moments, the startle moments, the “someone is watching me” moments, etc. are all handled deftly, smoothly, and concisely, so that on the basic horror level, they’re surprisingly effective in how much they disturb despite being such familiar moments.

Besides the stylistic quality of In the Shadows of Men, these moments feel less “trope-y” because Bennett is so good at creating both vivid characters and atmosphere in few words. I don’t know if I’d say writing good huge tomes is “easy,” but I do think it’s easier than writing good short works. Brevity is tough, effective brevity even more so, and Bennett is a master at it, reminding me albeit in different fashion of Ursula K. LeGuin in the way he can convey so much using such sparse language. We don’t get pages and pages of details on how our narrator’s life was upended, what happened to his marriage, how Bear became addicted or how he got subsequently clean again. But we don’t need those details as both men come fully alive as characters; we can see them, we can hear their desperation and anger, we can feel their sense of their lives slipping away from them.

Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett

All of that, meanwhile, enhanced and echoed by the West Texas setting, which itself is echoed by the sparse, lyrical language, introduced at the very start:

To travel across West Texas at night is to pass through bursts of light and seas of shadow, these sudden punctuations of towns clinging to the highways as they slash through scrub … An aging unlit asphalt road will suddenly flow into a smooth, cement highway, fresh and new and lit up white. Then you will pass through countless tiny villages that are seemingly abandoned, all crumbling grain silos and mid-century town squares … a strikingly bipolar place, an empty land that has somehow gone mad overnight, suddenly teeming with trucks and truckers and workers and trailers as dozens of companies converge on the desert flats to plumb the depths of the Permian … giant coiling flares unscrolling from the towers … making the many shadows dance like witches in the woods … A land studded with giant candles burning in the darkness, apparently unobserved, unwatched … what is being burned has spent millions of years sleeping miles and miles under the skin of the earth.

That’s a long quote, but it’s just so damn good, not just stylistically but in the way it introduces so much of what is to comes. Isolation. The dual nature of things. Battling light and dark. The hint of violence with that word “slash.” Dissolution and decay via the “crumbling” silos. Things not being what they seem — “seemingly abandoned,” “apparently unobserved.” The introduction of the supernatural with those witches in the woods. The reference to madness. How things can change so suddenly, so abruptly. And that sense of something buried, of the past being brought to light, of something being awakened. So. Damn. Good. Believe me, I could have kept going with that opening. But you get the idea.

Bennett, though, isn’t interested just in showing off his stylistic chops or in simply scaring the reader. What makes In the Shadows of Men rise above simple adrenaline rush is its depth, the way Bennett uses it as a vehicle to yes, tell a horrifyingly compelling story, but also, despite its slim nature, to explore large themes: what it means to be a man in today’s world versus what we’re told it means to be a man, the ways too many have become inured to the (non-supernatural) horrors of our society, how the past shapes the future (and how deterministic that shaping is), the withering of the American dream for so many and how society seemingly averts its collective eye to their plight, our short-sighted use of fossil fuel, the way violence engenders violence, and others.

Here, for instance, is the narrator on how his expectations, based on the classic American dream, have panned out:

This was not the story I was supposed to live. I was supposed to get a job and a wife and a child and we were supposed to flourish. It was not supposed to be so hard to do every little thing … It was not supposed to be like this. Nothing was supposed to be like this. Everything was not supposed to be so goddamned hard.

And here’s his brother Bear:

“Shit’s changed. Used to be you could go almost anywhere in America, find decent works, get a house, get a pension, get a family, and you wouldn’t have to tear your hair out or go into debt … I’m clean. But that don’t matter now. You see a man like me ever making a decent life for himself these days? I mean, really?”

As with the opening, I could cite a number of other passages delving into these themes, each of them thought-provoking, each of them more disturbing in their reality than any of the supernatural horrors presented to us. I won’t say how either those horror elements or the more unsettling social criticisms play out, save to say that In the Shadows of Men’s lyrical closing paragraph is perhaps more haunting than all that has come before. Bennett remains at the top of his game. Even when, or perhaps especially when, that “game” is deeply, deeply serious.

Published in September 2020. In the desolate flats of west Texas, two brothers purchase an old motel with the intent of renovating it and making a fortune off the population surge brought about by the fracking boom. Though each man is lured there by the promise of wealth, they are also fleeing something: a history of trauma, of failure, of family abuse, and shame. But the motel proves to have a history of its own. Once the business of a distant relative of theirs, Corbin Pugh, the brothers begin to discover signs that it might have been more than just a motel back during the wildcatter days of the last oil boom. As they live and labor in its dusty halls, fighting the crawling feeling that they are not alone here, they begin to wonder: what kind of a man was Corbin Pugh? What happened in the rooms he owned, so many decades ago? And is the motel changing them, warping them to become more ruthlessly ambitious and brutal—or is this what men must become in order to survive on the edge of civilization?

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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3 comments

  1. Excellent review, Bill, thanks. This has now moved to the very tippy-top of the TBR mountain.

  2. Do you think there’s ever going to be a hardcopy version?

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