Monday, February 08, 2010

Death comes ripping

Debut novelist Robert Jackson Bennett has gotten some buzz for his Mr. Shivers. I'm not quite sure what I make of it. Set in Depression America, it features a determined father named Connelly seeking vengeance for the death of his daughter. A man the hobos call Mr. Shivers is responsible, and Connelly follows Shivers into the Hoovervilles, the hobo camps and the desolate and abandoned dust bowl. He winds up joining a small band of men hunting the same man.

Thanks to the setting and the escalating sense that all is not what it seems, the book is called a marriage of Steinbeck and King. I think it is closer to Cormac McCarthy and a certain James Blish novel. I tend to think of California when I think of Steinbeck, whereas the wild, Biblical West is McCarthy's territory. Bennett's writing is also McCarthy like, with lengthy and symbolic descriptions of the barren landscape. He goes one better than McCarthy by pushing past the metaphor straight into reality.

Some of the scenes in the book are great. I particularly liked one where Connelly and his gang of vengeful seekers follow Shivers to an empty down about to be consumed in a dust storm. Bennett creates a great sense of dread and makes a pristine house particularly disturbing.

So why my hesitation? I think the prose weighs down the story of Connelly's dark quest of vengeance. His transformation from grieving father to vengeful destroyer didn't quite work either. Some of the mythological elements also felt a bit forced. In the end, I would recommend it to horror fans who like their books well written and their plots large scale.

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