Friday, 26 March 2010

Coming Attractions: The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

Buy this book from
Earlier in the week, The Speculative Scotsman reviewed "the most impressive horror fiction debut since Joe Hill." I also wrote that Mr Shivers, the breathtaking debut of Robert Jackson Bennett, represents "a staggeringly persuasive argument for the infinite possibilities of the horror novel."

So it's safe to say I liked it.

Just a day later - but not a dollar short, no sir - Orbit Books, by way of a cover reveal on their blog, stealth announced Bennett's second novel, The Company Man. First of all, here's the synopsis:

"A trolley car pulls into the station with eleven dead bodies inside. Four minutes before, the inhabitants were seen boarding at the previous station. All are dead. And all of them are union.

"The year is 1919. The McNaughton Corporation is the pinnacle of American industry. They built airships that cross the seas. Guns that won the Great War. And above all, the city of Evesden. But something is rotten at the heart of Evesden.

"Caught between the union and the company, between the police and the victims, Hayes must find the truth behind the city before it kills him."

And the cover, as above, is, another gorgeous piece of work by Lauren Panepinto that riffs brilliantly off her work on the art adorning Mr Shivers and very much embodies the noir and retro-futuristic elements she cites of The Company Man's narrative.

Not to be needlessly reductive, but between the cover, the synopsis and Lauren's description, I'm put in mind of Jeff Vandermeer's fantastically dark Finch. A high bar to reach, perhaps, though if Bennett's debut is any indication, I don't doubt he'll rise to the challenge.

In any event, shortly after a session of burbling on Twitter about how much I'd enjoyed Mr Shivers, the one - the only - Robert Jackson Bennett got in touch. It's always a pleasure to hear from an author you admire, and the timing in this case was so perfect I couldn't resist asking the gentleman a few questions about The Company Man. I hope to have a longer conversation with Robert closer to the publication of his second novel, but for the moment, a few tantalising morsels of information about it have certainly whetted my appetite.

Here's a little of what he had to say. As ever, the questions I put to him are in bold, and his answers, well, aren't. Enjoy!


Much to my surprise, a rather atmospheric synopsis of THE COMPANY MAN appeared on Orbit's book blog a few days ago. I can hardly express how pleased I am that we'll be seeing another novel from you before 2010's out, but before I lose myself to the madness of months of anticipation, might there be anything more can you tell us about THE COMPANY MAN?

Well, the story's set in 1919 in an alternate America, one much more technologically advanced than ours was at that same time. These advancements have come courtesy of the McNaughton Corporation, and have ushered America onto the world stage and into hegemony much sooner than in our timeline. The industrial town of Evesden on the West Coast is their place of operations, and the main character, Hayes, works there as an internal securities agent, nosing out leaks and shady dealing in the upper echelons. When the working classes begin to openly act against McNaughton's virtual monopoly, Hayes is assigned to try and ferret out union sympathizers within the company ranks. But when an underground trolley coasts into a station with nearly everyone on it butchered, Hayes identifies nearly all of the victims as McNaughton workers suspected of sabotage, and soon begins to wonder about exactly where his company came from, and what future they're making for the world.

When THE COMPANY MAN comes out in October, it'll have been a mere ten months since MR SHIVERS hit bookstore shelves. Given that, is it safe to assume you wrote what will be your second published novel before selling your debut?

Yep, I wrote it immediately after MR SHIVERS, and finished it while we were still submitting my debut to publishers. I actually had the rough draft ready well before we even started talking about a second book. I edited it for over a year, and very soon its voice and structure began to change and it wound up something completely different from MR SHIVERS.

That's something that was mentioned when the book was announced, and now you've stressed it yourself, I can't help but wonder: did THE COMPANY MAN represent a conscious effort on your part to write something very different from MR SHIVERS?

Well, there're a lot of reasons for it. One is that I get bored pretty easy. When you write a book, you basically live inside this isolated little world for about a year or more. Sixty percent of your waking thought processes are always stuck in it, to some degree or another. It's like sitting in a small room with a bunch of shelves of stuff on the walls around you, and playing around and trying to see what works with what. And I decided that if I was going to live in a whole new little room for a year I wanted some new toys at the very least. A change of scenery. Maybe I'd get a fan. Maybe it wouldn't be a room at all this time, but a basement. And I figured that if I was enjoying myself, playing around with these new things in a new place, then it'd show through in the writing, and the reader would respond accordingly.

But there was another dimension to it, which was just to try and see if I could do it. A test of will, I guess. MR SHIVERS, really, is a very small, spare book. It's a needle of a story: it's got very little excess, and most of it is functional at the pure, base level. And I wanted to try and broaden out and use a new voice and a new style and try and tackle something that would sprawl. Something much bigger and messier and, potentially, richer and more colorful. There was a technical interest in it.

A lot of the fun in writing is sort of an engineering fun: how the hell are we going to move this thing? How are we going to get water out of this? How tall can this go? When you get it to work, it brings a real satisfaction that I think, say, building the same pretty house over and over again wouldn't. Plenty of people may still be clamoring to live in those houses you make, but you'd get sick of it real quick.

Now THE COMPANY MAN isn't a sequel to MR SHIVERS by any stretch of the imagination, but given that both of your novels are set against similar, alt-historical periods of America, can I ask if there's any chance they share a world?

No, they don't. I don't consider MR SHIVERS to be alternate history so much as a myth. It works in archetypes and images and language we're all familiar with. I wanted it to live in our collective subconscious. It was supposed to be like a fable from long ago, like Odin creating the world from the corpse of Ymir: it's impossible, and it takes place in an older country, but it still feels true. You know it didn't happen, but it's describing true things.

THE COMPANY MAN is alternate history for sure. It plays around with who's in the White House, how World War I happened (or didn't happen, or hasn't happened yet), and how telecommunications and transportation can show up to the party early and change things. It's much more grounded in its relation to reality and the present than MR SHIVERS was. Those who didn't like the quiet and unspoken mythology of MR SHIVERS may cotton on to THE COMPANY MAN more, since it's pretty loud and brassy in its genre and its tone. It focuses on the birth and potential decline of a city, one I intended to make as real as possible, with its many boroughs and stratifications and customs and odd manner of speech. It's meant to be a somewhat foreign place, but still one you recognize. I mean, if you see a busy street in the morning, you’ll probably figure out a lot of what's going on no matter what city it's in or what language they're speaking.


It was a real pleasure chatting with Robert about his work, even briefly. My heartfelt thanks to him for fielding my questions so graciously.

Mr Shivers has to be the best book I've read this year, so I've got my pre-order in for The Company Man already. Readers: if you know what's good for you, you'd do the same.


  1. I found your review of Mr Shivers intriguing. I don't normally read horror, but I might make an exception. I read the Grapes of Wrath last year - it's fantastic - but more than anything its the descriptions of the land, the vastness of it and the effects of the dustbowl - maybe it's because I'm a trainee ecologist, but the unproductive land (and humanity's powerlessness against it) is truly horrifying. Mr Shivers sounds like it is set against a similar kind of background. I'm tempted to read it, re-read the Grapes of Wrath and then read Cormac McCarthy's The Road as a weird sort of thematic trilogy.

    And this next book ... I can't resist a bit of noir, nor a bit of americana for that matter.