In 2012, Dathan Auerbach published a striking debut novel titled “Penpal.” Composed of linked stories that initially appeared on the Internet site Reddit, the completed novel was released under Auerbach’s personal imprint, 1000Vultures. Although self-published, the book was no mere vanity project, but a well-crafted, quietly disturbing account of crimes against children — crimes recollected, and ultimately understood, in adulthood. The book made a significant ripple in the horror community, leading now to the mainstream publication of Auerbach’s larger, darker, more ambitious second novel, “Bad Man.”
Like “Penpal,” “Bad Man” tells a story of damaged and endangered children. It begins when 15-year-old Ben, the troubled, overweight protagonist, accompanies Eric, his 3-year-old half brother, on a routine trip to a grocery store. There, in a seemingly mundane setting filled with fellow customers and store employees, Eric vanishes.
“Bad Man” is an unsparing account of the endless aftermath of that disappearance. In the primary narrative, which begins five years later, Ben has just graduated from high school. His stepmother is an emotional wreck, and his father struggles to hold things together during a severe economic downturn. Meanwhile, Ben, wracked by guilt, searches obsessively for the brother he believes is still alive. All three remain frozen by tragedy until Ben goes to work as an overnight stock boy in the very store from which Eric disappeared.
Once Ben’s work on the graveyard shift begins, his search takes on a renewed urgency. A stuffed toy belonging to Eric mysteriously reappears. A defaced version of Eric’s missing persons flier shows up in Ben’s locker. Drawings of enigmatic stick figures suddenly proliferate, and a fellow employee claims to have glimpsed Eric in a nearby stretch of forest. Urged by these various “clues,” Ben follows his obsession through assorted hazards to a resolution that is both satisfying and unexpected.
“Bad Man” is an atmospheric and unsettling novel, but not a perfect one. The plot, seen largely through Ben’s limited point of view, can be murky and difficult to follow. Certain elements — one of which involves shadowy events at a place called Blackwater School — are insufficiently developed. Yet the book works. Auerbach’s portrait of an after-hours grocery store — as benign a setting as one could imagine — takes on an aura of almost Gothic menace. Most importantly, his ability to convey the grief, guilt and sense of loss that fuel Ben’s fixation gives the book a resonant emotional center. With just two novels, Auerbach has established himself as a significant figure in the post-King generation of horror writers. It will be interesting and instructive to see what dark places he takes us to next.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Dathan Auerbach
Doubleday. 400 pp. $26.95