Robert Jackson Bennett
Orbit hardcover �12.99
review by David Hebblethwaite
It is only January, and already there's a new book that should be read by anyone with an interest in the literature of the fantastic. Robert Jackson
Bennett's Mr Shivers is at once a chase across the Depression-era United States, a fantasy quest in horror clothing, and a powerful metaphoric
portrait of a particular point in history.
The surface of the novel looks something like this: Marcus Connelly is heading west in search of a scarred man who has wronged him in ways Connelly
is reluctant to reveal. He falls in with a group of other travellers, all seeking revenge against that same man - the mysterious figure known as
'Mr Shivers' - who leaves death behind him wherever he goes. There are encounters.
I know that last sentence sounds dismissive, but, the thing is, I think the surface story is probably the least interesting thing about Mr Shivers,
and I don't want to dwell on it too much. Actually, if viewed just at the surface level, the novel would be a pretty unsatisfactory read, because
Bennett - deliberately, I think - takes a rather minimalist approach to some key aspects of his book. The set-up is swift: we join Connelly in the
middle of his journey, and he acquires companions in a matter of pages.
The characterisation is tightly focused on the here-and-now: we learn little of people's backgrounds, and their inner lives - even Connelly's, to
some considerable extent - are largely hidden from us. The atmosphere, the feel, of the period is captured less through description than through
dialogue, which is often terse or harsh. This is not to imply that Mr Shivers contains no moments of beautiful writing, because it does - but those
moments are more related to the novel's subtext.
Before digging down to that level, though, let's stay one stratum above and look at what Bennett does with fantasy. As suggested earlier, Mr
Shivers is in one aspect a traditional fantasy quest - a band of companions travelling through a landscape, heading towards a goal and encountering
obstacles, and so on - but placed in a rather less traditional setting. Bennett weaves the supernatural into his tale, in a particularly striking way;
magical happenings feel not like an intervention of otherness, but an ordinary part of the world (so much so that one could doubt they were really
magical) - yet with the sense that, if you look closely enough, you'll see more than you bargained for.
The initial rumours of Mr Shivers describe him in terms that make him sound like an ancient god or a bogeyman - or maybe just a preternaturally
skilled and dangerous man. There's a fortune-teller who might really be psychic, three old women who might be something like witches - but all
deployed with an earthy realism that gives them a very distinctive feel.
Where Mr Shivers truly shines, though, is in its subtext. One of the novel's key points is that the search for revenge against Mr Shivers
is having a detrimental effect on those undertaking it; it's consuming their lives, making them lose perspective. That, I think, is why we first
encounter Connelly in transit, why the emphasis is so much on the characters' travels than on anything else about them - because, to these people,
the journey is all.
Bennett uses this journey as a metaphor for the times in which his novel is set; the search for Mr Shivers is, in a sense, the
search for a better life during the upheavals of the Great Depression - an attempt to fight back against the uncaring world. It can feel at times
as though Bennett is labouring this point a little too much; but he works through the metaphor so completely that all such concerns are swept aside.
Mr Shivers is a remarkable book in which story and subtext go hand-in-hand, each amplifying the other. It establishes Bennett as an essential
new voice in the field, and will richly repay your time.