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.