[GUEST REVIEW] Lawrence Person Reviews ‘Mr. Shivers’ by Robert Jackson Bennett
[Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Jim Baen's Universe, and Postscripts, as well as several anthologies. He reviews movies for Locus Online, frequently in collaboration with Howard Waldrop. He's the once and future editor of Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books. It's a good life, if you don't weaken.]
REVIEW SUMMARY: A very strong debut novel.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: During the depression, several men attempt to hunt down a tall, scarred man who has violently taken loved ones from each of them. But the longer they search, the more apparent it becomes that Mr. Shivers isn’t a man at all, but perhaps the Devil (or even Death) himself.
PROS: Strong prose; vivid descriptions of dustbowl-era America; a scary and compelling antagonist.
CONS: An astute reader is going figure out how certain scenes unfold and how the novel ends fairly quickly.
BOTTOM LINE: A very strong debut novel, worthy of award consideration.
Joe Dominici, thriller writer and former co-owner of Future Visions in Houston, called this “The finest first novel I have read in years” just a couple of months before his untimely death last year. Now that I’ve read it I agree.
The story opens with our protagonist Connelly making his way through a depression-era hobo camp searching for news of a tall, scarred man who (we later learn) killed his young daughter. It’s there that he finds three companions also searching for the scarred man, and the four of them go off tracking tales and rumors of him across the dustbowl. Along the way they come across another group looking for him and join forces. They come close in on him in one town, only to have a dust storm swallow him up at the last moment…but not before Mr. Shivers seems to recognize Connelly. And, stranger still, fear him.
They push on, but it seems their quarry has laid traps for them along the way, and soon the purity of their quest is severely tarnished by the things they do to survive. And the longer and more arduous their quest, the more it becomes apparent that Mr. Shivers is far from human…
This is a very strong debut novel, reminiscent of K. W. Jeter’s In the Land of the Dead, but I found Mr. Shivers the stronger of the two. Bennett is already an accomplished stylist, and his descriptions of the bleak landscapes his characters travel through have the vivid, compelling weight of real life.
The main drawback is that a regular SF/F/H reader is going to tell fairly early on where the story is going, and recognize dangers to which the characters are too oblivious. You also see the ending of the novel a good ways off.
Not everyone will want to take such an unremittingly dark journey, but those who do are likely to find it a very rewarding trip.
Bennett showed up at Armadillocon (turns out he lives in Austin), giving out free copies of his book, and seemed very personable and annoyingly young. I’m pretty sure Mr. Shivers will show up on my Hugo and Nebula preliminary ballots this year, and I’ll make certain to put Bennett on my John W. Campbell Award ballot as well (along with the deeply unworthy Matthew Bey).
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