Robert Jackson Bennett‘s debut novel, Mr Shivers, plays out to a sound track of a demented Ennio Morricone or Nick Cave against the 1930s dustbowl. Marcus Connelly is hunting down Mr Shivers, a scarred man who leaves death in his tracks.
As he traverses across the rusty, dust covered arteries (the heart f’urring slowly under its accretions), Connelly gathers a band of fellow travellers equally bound on finding Mr Shivers but also scared of him. The band gradually falls apart amongst its own weight and iniquities, each finding the road more testing than it was previously thought. Perhaps it is easier to travel aimlessly rather than with such grim determination?
Bennett though delivers no straight appointment in Samaria nor equally straight god game. God clearly plays with loaded dice.
Connelly finds Mr Shivers but realises the appointment may not be with him but Connelly himself. Mr Shivers is equally scared of death, despite being the reaper. Yet Connelly’s journey is also one of preparation. Fighting with the hobos, dealing with crooked cops, nearly broken by the living incarnation of death, he sees the desperate side of life, descending through a modern version of the Inferno. Finding Mr Shivers fighting a bull in the moonlight, Connelly begins to see the real journey that he has taken. He has experienced the differing arterial flows of the industrial world but now sees the primal world of pulsing hearts, sticky, visceral flows and muscles. (Its almost like a Lorca play or what I’d imagine a Hemingway description of a bullfight to be.) Beaten, bloodied and even more scared, Mr Shivers draws Connelly into a crack in the mountain and lets him know of the deal which keeps him alive.
Where the typical appointment would see Connelly fighting and perhaps dying, Bennett makes him become death. So the concept, notion of death becomes one of change. The 1930s is giving way to the 1940s, and Connelly’s shadow is one of incomprehensible amounts of death rather than the more individual touch of the previous owner. He embodies a certain attitude of allowing change, even if it is largely unwelcome. Taking on the mantle of death, Connelly strides out certain in his duty. His appointment is not to meet but to become death, he does not run away but has come to actively accept it.
Meditating on the ebb of life and death and the nature of change, this is a deep debut which deserves a wider readership than just a horror market. Bennett’s feeling for the characters and their individual desperations, his way of making the reader see the world differently makes this a book that is worth reading. Mixing the social novel (like a gentler George Orwell circa Coming up for Air) with horror, Mr Shivers is not a comfortable read and challenges the reader to step into shoes which become increasingly hostile. It appears strangely apposite in the current recessional state of Britain (and possibly the States but I’ve not been there in a while), that we are waiting for a change but will not necessarily readily accept. However once the change has taken place, the blood will find new arteries through which to flow.