This debut novel ambitiously aims to blend American gothic, historical grit and the sinister, surreal otherworldliness of a menacing modern-day myth. The sparse text veers towards the literary end of the spectrum, where the author establishes the narrative dynamic and the emotional context for the increasingly unsettling scenes, but lets the reader’s imagination run wild with the fine detail.
Mr Shivers begins as a latter-day western might, with wronged wanderers who meet on the road, each in pursuit of a scarred stranger who has dipped his hands in their families’ blood. Vengeance is on the agenda – and this could easily have been a straightforward revenge romp, but author Robert Jackson Bennett chose a much broader canvas…
The story is set in the Great Depression, in the terrible dustbowl conditions which saw crops fail and families starve amid mass migration. A ragtag band of semi-starving misfits forms, driven to desperate deeds by the gruesome actions of the man they pursue. They ride the railroad as hobos, risking injury and assault. At this point, the story could’ve been a straightforward social history, an exploration of the survivors’ emotional loss, but then the plot takes an altogether more ominous turn as events become increasingly uncanny. So while initially the horror-style title of the book (which sounded to me like it’d been borrowed from a Stephen King bestseller) felt misplaced, it perfectly suits the second half of the book with its increasingly supernatural aspects. Shakespeare’s wyrd sisters even make a special guest appearance.
The author’s ‘light touch’ writing style means that some of the characters are less well defined bit-players, almost incidental cannon fodder. Even the three or four core characters are stripped back to their essential selves – there’s no fluff in this book, no unnecessary elaboration as the ‘good guys’ gradually unravel during their quest. You can watch their humanity degrading as they suffer increasingly appalling trials yet become all the more committed to tracking and destroying their enemy.
That said, there are several deftly drawn scenes of powerful poignancy when, for example, the protagonist Connelly has the opportunity to walk away from his awful purpose, to step back into human society. He’s given the chance to abandon his revenge – later, when he can’t recall the colour of his dead daughter’s eyes, this seems all the more sad. It’s also fascinating to watch the moral decline of the preacher, Pike, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the religious man is also the motivating force which bludgeons the men onwards.
If you’re not fond of road trips or quest novels, and if you prefer your horror to be painstakingly described rather than delivered through suggestion and understated implication, then Mr Shivers probably isn’t for you. There are moments where, like any quest, it sags under the weight of the repeated hardship of the road.
Also, the finale is pretty well telegraphed throughout the final third of the book and the outcome was no great surprise to me, when Connelly and Mr Shivers performed their final showdown. But perhaps that’s as it should be: this is a modern day myth, after all…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett is available as a paperback and ebook