Book review: Michael Dirda reviews Robert Jackson Bennett's 'Mr. Shivers'

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, February 11, 2010


By Robert Jackson Bennett

Orbit. 327 pp. $19.99

You'll recognize this novel in the store by its striking dust jacket: A man in a long topcoat, with a dark fedora pulled down across his brow, lies between the rails of a train track. He appears to be taking his ease, with his head on one iron rail and his feet crossed casually on the other. The track stretches far away into the misty distance. Underneath the title are the words: "Nobody can cheat death."

"Mr. Shivers" is set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, in a western America leached gray and dry until it resembles a lunar wasteland. The whole world seems to be dying, with nearly all its inhabitants sick or hungry and desperate. Across this hopeless, ravaged landscape there travels a strange scarred figure who brings death wherever he pauses: Mr. Shivers.

In hobo camps they tell stories about him. They say "that when Father Time woke up Mr. Shivers was there waiting, just sitting on the ground beside him and smiling. . . . They said Mr. Shivers had been in every jail in the country. The bulls would lock him up and he would sit there waiting for nightfall and when the moon shone through the bars he'd climb up the beam like a man on a staircase and be out just as fast as you could think. . . . They said that when bums and all the runaway boys and girls die they get their last chance to ride freight with Mr. Shivers, that he has a train made of night that rides straight to hell and the furnace don't run on coal or wood, the furnace runs on you. Mr. Shivers comes back and takes a foot or a hand or an eye or an ear and feeds it to his train, spurring it on, sending it down to the depths of the earth and to eternity as it eats you alive."

Who or what is Mr. Shivers? The broken-hearted Connelly knows that whatever else he may be, he's also human -- and Connelly means to kill him. No matter what the cost. Once, Connelly had been a contented man back in Memphis, with a wife and a beautiful young daughter. But one day Mr. Shivers brutally took his little girl from him. Now, Connelly follows the murderer's bloody trail, living only for revenge.

Robert James Bennett's first novel opens in a Depression era we recognize from old photographs: Here are the leather-cheeked farmers in bib overalls standing next to dilapidated trucks, hollow-eyed children dressed in potato sacks, tent-camp Hoovervilles, tawdry carnivals with skinny Gypsies and red-eyed geeks, the proud, ferretlike sheriffs of small country towns. You have seen their faces. But gradually, Bennett's story begins to shift away from Dust Bowl realism into the increasingly uncanny.

An old coot warns Connelly to give up his quest, a fortuneteller shudders at his future, and the stories about Mr. Shivers grow ever more unsettling. The scarred man speaks, we are told, as if "he has only recently learned that words exist. Not English, but all words. The nature of speaking is foreign to him." In the manner of a Hannibal Lecter or a world-weary assassin, when Mr. Shivers actually does address anyone, he is exceptionally soft-spoken and polite, almost gentle:

" 'It has been a long time since I have been aware of men,' said the gray man. 'A man, more specifically. You are all so alike. I can no more tell you apart than I could a drop of water in the ocean.' "

Nonetheless, this almost phantomlike night-stalker obviously fears the implacable Connelly.

As that avenger pursues his daughter's killer, he is joined by others who have suffered at the hands of "the Harvester, the Sickle Man," in particular a former preacher called Pike and a woman named Lottie, who silently mourns her dead child. What's more, despite his resolve, Connelly is periodically tempted to turn aside from his quest, by the possibility of love or of a home, by strange dreams about a blond young man, by the enigmatic counsel of three ancient crones, by the real threat of madness and death. But, then, Connelly takes out the worn picture in his wallet of his green-eyed daughter and tramps on. There will be blood.

If you enjoy dark thrillers, and can stand several pages of sustained and anatomically graphic violence, "Mr. Shivers" will see you through a cold February evening. Little that happens in it, however, will be completely surprising to aficionados of this genre -- I sometimes felt that Bennett had found the book's plot elements by ransacking his library of contemporary dystopian fantasy. Of course, every young writer builds on his reading, and Bennett has certainly produced a memorably grim vision of how and why our world is as it is. Nonetheless, the captious may complain that aspects of the novel seem overly indebted to Stephen King's "Dark Tower" sequence, Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" and Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and "Blood Meridian." The more generous may enjoy "Mr. Shivers" precisely because it is part of this same apocalyptic strain in modern American literature.

At the very least, though, one must congratulate Robert James Bennett for his convincingly bleak setting and for the creation of Mr. Shivers, "the Harvester," "the Skullsie Man," "the Grinning Bone Dancer." You don't want to meet him -- unless your name is Connelly.

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