Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: Mr. Shivers

In this 2010 Shirley Jackson Award-winning novel, Robert Jackson Bennett takes readers into one of the saddest, grittiest times in modern American history: The Great Depression. People were uprooted from their homes and took flight to (literally) greener pastures. 

Except Connelly.  He just wants revenge.

This sad, broken man left his home and wife in the east to search the country for the man who killed his young daughter.  He saw the man, whose features were haunting and unique: tall, thin and scarred.  Connelly planned to dog this killer across the country, however long it might take, and do to him what he did to his daughter.

The thing is, he isn't the only one looking for Mr. Shivers, named by those whose lives he has ruined.  The scarred man has been all over the country and has touched the lives of many people. Connelly takes up with them to further his goal of revenge.

In his modern American Gothic novel, Bennett shares with readers the language and spirit of the times in which the characters live.  He begins each chapter with symbols used by the disenfranchised travelers, hobos, to identify a friendly estate or warn fellow hobos away from homes and train station that are at best unsympathetic and at worst cruel.  Even the landscape rises up to help tell the tale.

As Bennett wove his story, he kept a toehold in reality while all the time teetering dangerously close to the too-bizarre.  The tension built as clues began to add up and readers turns the page and sees the edges of the supernatural peeking out from the other side; not a full-blown introduction, but readers know it is there nonetheless.

After a while, however, the tale becomes a little too surreal.  The mooring to reality is lost in an instant, and the supernatural began to occupy too prominent and obvious a place in the story.  It was the factual foundation that gave the story its strength.   Additionally, as the novel reached its crescendo, the story went from whispered fear to shrieking sirens.

Finally, as a reader invested in the lives and actions of these characters, I did not approve of what happened to them.  I don't have to like it, but I do have to accept it — and the telling of this tale made it difficult to do so.

Please read this, if you're inclined to horror stories, and let me know if you agree with my conclusion — or if I just am out of step with good horror writing in the new millennium.

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