A TRAIN crosses the Missouri state line with a man clinging to the side of a cattle car. three other men, shabbily dressed, also hold on, their eyes peeled for the freight boss who, if he catches them, will “whale them raw”.
This is the powerful opening to Robert Jackson Bennett’s debut Mr Shivers, arriving on these shores festooned with the kind of praise rarely visited on first novels. It’s the time of the Great Depression in the USA and the man hitching a ride is Marcus Connelly, who has little to live for except revenge.
His daughter has been savagely killed and Connelly has left Memphis to search through the hobo camps and abandoned townships that now litter America, chasing a scarred, wraith-like figure who is known only as Mr Shivers.
Connelly gathers around him a motley collection of tramps and damaged people all of whom have had similarly ruinous run-ins with the “gray man”. As they close in, there will be much bloodletting and the act of revenge for Connelly and his companions may prove as destructive for them as for their nemesis. Bennett’s novel is as riveting in its slow-burning accumulation of tension as it is atmospheric in its period evocation.
Even for those who shy away from such fare the element of the supernatural is persuasively handled, firmly keeping scepticism at bay. This is very much a book with its own identity but there are two authors (one dead and literary, one alive and populist) hiding in the shadows here – John Steinbeck and Stephen King.
The economical, persuasive characterisation and the sudden shocking outbursts of horror owe something to King, the master of contemporary horror but the brilliantly realised picture of dustbowl America is firmly in the Steinbeck tradition. It’s not stretching a point to say that, at times, Bennett’s stinging but hauntingly poetic prose aspires to the quality of that author’s best work.
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