by Robert Jackson Bennett
Review by Liz de Jager
Orbit Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781841498577
Date: 21 January 2010 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Robert Jackson Bennett's assured début Mr Shivers is an impressive first novel indeed. Set in the time of The Great Depression, it is a bleak revenge tragedy that drives inexorably forward through a fantastically dark and dusty landscape - think Carnivale meets The Gunslinger. Publisher Orbit clearly (and with good reason) have high hopes for Bennett, releasing this on both sides of the Atlantic in hard cover. The first acquisition for keen-eyed editor Dongwon Song, this is definitely one to watch. Reviewed this issue by Liz de Jager.
"It is the time of the Great Depression. The dustbowl has turned the western skies red and thousands leave their homes seeking a better life. Marcus Connelly seeks not a new life, but a death – a death for the mysterious scarred man who murdered his daughter. And soon he learns that he is not alone. Countless others have lost someone to the scarred man. They band together to track him, but as they get closer, Connelly begins to suspect that the man they are hunting is more than human. As the pursuit becomes increasingly desperate, Connelly must decide just how much he is willing to sacrifice to get his revenge."
Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett came as a big surprise. It walks that line between vengeance / supernatural horror / Western and paranormal fantasy and it was not at all what I expected.
Set in 1930s America with wild red skies and a migration of people leaving the prairie to escape the drought and harsh living conditions as an eerily evocative backdrop, we find and follow Michael Connelly after the murder of his daughter as he sets off to track down the scarred man, the gray man – the eponymous Mr. Shivers.
Connolly's character is well defined and created for his task – he remains in this sort of stasis as he hunts across the country for the man he blames for his daughter's death. He has one purpose: vengeance. And little else seems to penetrate his consciousness. As he teams up with a group of other itinerant travellers he discovers he's not alone in his quest for vengeance and retribution. He learns the various stories, myths and rumours about Mr. Shivers and slowly but surely the horror of the situation becomes apparent – there's a good chance that this man they're hunting is something not human. As his knowledge of his quarry deepens his quest becomes all-consuming.
The novel's pace reflects Connolly's character – an intensely personal man, quiet and reserved, he's not the type of character you would expect to find in a situation like this. The writing is very understated and took a while to get used to, but then this again reflects the character, the era, the reason for the story.
I'd give credit to Mr. Bennett for a very evocative novel. The creeping sense of desperation coupled with the slow reveal of Mr. Shiver's true nature is outstanding. He's manages to convey a sense of place, time and the incredible space of the country they are travelling through, yet because of the intense focus on Connolly and his obsession, it creates an atmosphere of stifling claustrophobia.
A very strong contender for one of the best books of 2010, I do however think that there will be readers who may not appreciate the slow-burn or the lack of true jump-out-of-your-skin horror. But if you're a fan of atmospheric writing, Mr. Shivers is right up your street. It is clever, well written, intensely focused and a unique road trip through one of the direst times of American history.