Saturday, 6 November 2010

review: Robert Jackson Bennett's Mr Shivers

I chose to review Orbit’s Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett because Orbit were doing their usual persuasive hype for this title, putting their all into marketing it at every stage, including a ‘create your own hobo signs’ competition, and with Creative Director Lauren Panepinto’s ability to get excited about a huge spectrum of Orbit’s titles and subgenres, it was hard not to get caught up by it all.

Way back when in September 2008, then-new Editor Dongwon Song flagged up Mr Shivers as his first requisition, calling it ‘chock full of hobos and murder and blood’.

And it is. This thriller/alt-history Horror is set in Depression-era America, but not as we know it. All across America people are travelling in droves, leaving their homes and belongings behind them to seek out a better life. Marcus Connelly is also blazing a trail through America’s dustbowl, but not to seek his fortune. He only wants revenge; to kill the mysterious scarred man, the stranger, Mr Shivers, who murdered his little girl. Connelly has left his wife behind and family home to become one of the new generation hobos. Risking the perils of riding the trains, of hunger and thirst, of the strange company he keeps, Connelly relentlessly hunts the shiver-man through the sightings and folktales of the people he encounters along the way. Like his companions, Pike, Roosevelt and Hammond, who have also lost loved ones to the mythical killer, as he gets closer to the legend, he must also come to terms with his mission, and whether he can commit the murder he desires more than life itself.

Mr Shivers has a simple but effective plot. Although at times it felt frustrating that the characters continued their relentless pursuit at the expense of all else, including plot intricacies and character development, this is a feeling that the book is supposed to evoke. The characters don’t have much in the way of background or personalities, and Connelly is barely there at all. But this is because they are victims of their own grief, their twisted journey across a barren land a metaphor for how they’ve sacrificed their own lives to this all-encompassing emotion.

I love the world that Bennett has created. You can practically feel the heat from this red-tinged, dust-ridden, dry desert landscape rising up from the pages. The land has a personality, and a cruel and pitiless one at that. It reflects the despondent age of the Great Depression, and the desolate shells of human beings navigating across its pitted surface.

Like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods-lite, Mr Shivers deals with mythology and the creation of folklore through oral tradition. This slight book doesn’t have the scope of American Gods however, merely hinting at a deeper mythology beyond the basic goings-on, and it would have been fulfilling to have seen more done with this theme throughout the narrative, as opposed to it cropping up in odd, but effectual, places.

This is a thriller/Horror but there are times when you want it to be more horrific than thrilling. There are key moments throughout the narrative where the writing pulls away from the ‘big reveal’, missing out on the pay-off at the end of a gripping, tension-inducing set-up, leaving the average Horror reader no doubt feeling slightly cheated. This is also, however, another mark of debut-author Bennett’s writing prowess, as he deftly manipulates and builds his readers’ frustrations, so that they mirror his characters’ own lack of fulfilment.

Unfortunately, there is a turning point towards the end in Mr Shivers where reader sympathy with the lead protagonist, Connelly, shifts. The way the book is going to end from then on seems like forgone conclusion and, ultimately, this is where the book lost me.

You can read an extract of it on Orbit’s site. It is well worth a look as overall I really enjoyed this book; I just prefer my protagonists to retain my sympathy until the last possible sentence.

The next tile by Bennett is The Company Man, again set in an alternative history of America, but is not a sequel to Mr Shivers. It's a detective noir in the Horror genre. I’m genuinely excited to read this author again (plus I’m an old romantic when it comes to alternative detective noir, like Malcolm Pryce’s underrated Aberystwyth series).

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