Monday, 22 March 2010

Book Review: Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett

Buy this book from

"It is the time of the Great Depression. The dustbowl has turned the western skies red and thousands leave their homes seeking a better life. Marcus Connelly seeks not a new life, but a death - a death for the mysterious scarred man who murdered his daughter.

"And soon he learns that he is not alone. Countless others have lost someone to the scarred man. They band together to track him, but as they get closer, Connelly begins to suspect that the man they are hunting is more than human. As the pursuit becomes increasingly desperate, Connelly must decide just how much he is willing to sacrifice to get his revenge."


Mr Shivers represents the most impressive horror fiction debut since Joe Hill made his big break with the wonderfully wicked Heart-Shaped Box. In point of fact, though bleaker by half, Robert Jackson Bennett's first novel is a more memorable experience than even that.

There. I've said it.

With the blurb behind me, I turned the first few pages of Mr Shivers not knowing quite what to expect. My first thought was a simple, bloody revenge thriller, but soon enough it came clear that Bennett's debut was as much an unsettling tale of the macabre as that, or perhaps a careful character study of a man reeling from an awful loss. Or indeed, a mythic road-trip set against the crimson-tinged dustbowl of the Great Depression. But Mr Shivers is none of those things in isolation, though its narrative takes in every one and more besides. It defies description. It defies even its too-often degenerate genre. It is, and by a large margin, the best novel I've read in 2010 thus far.

That it's Bennett's first only startles me all the more. His is a voice that bleeds confidence: precise and assured, he spins his tale directly, with little of the digression and obfuscation many new novelists lean upon to disguise their uncertainty. We meet Connelly, a man devastated by the untimely death of his daughter, and learn of his vengeful intent; he comes upon a hodgepodge of other lost souls, each wronged in their own way by the scarred man in gray Connelly hunts; and together, the hobo gang trudge through the endless trail of death and destruction the enigmatic Mr Shivers leaves in his wake.

Mr Shivers is in many respects a rather straightforward novel. From the first chapter to the last, there is a clear, perfectly paced throughline that keeps the narrative tense. The object of Connelly's hatred never seems far away, and so the reader is drawn from encounter to encounter feeling always that the explosive showdown between these two men - not so dissimilar in character and purpose as they might think - is sure to come soon. When inevitably Connelly and his disparate companions do approach the end of their deadly pilgrimage, readers will have long felt its desperate pull - inexorable, awful and awesome all at once.

Connelly is a brilliantly laconic character, terse and deadly, demented by the death of his daughter, a "future and a life violently aborted without even a cry to mark its passing from the world." On his journey he comes upon a motley assortment of kindred spirits which sing with the same raw passion: a pitiable fortune teller, a fallen man of the Lord, a woman faced with a quandary much like his own. The most haunting of all the characters in Mr Shivers, however, has to be its evocative setting against a decaying America which writhes against the sky with all the horror of a ball of breeding snakes. Bennett's debut is, in its way, a song for a dying earth; a lament to a moment in our history "which they all now felt was penultimate. They lived in a dead and dying age. Already they were but memories for the future."

Bennet's prose is exquisite, sparse and poetic, dripping with the sort of sacred profanity Crooked Little Vein writer Warren Ellis has made his stock and trade. In the last act, the gray man explains that he has "stood on the edge of the world and pissed into nothingness. I've seen the things that hide and dance behind the stars in the sky and I pinned them to the ground and laughed and made them tell me their names one by one." Mr Shivers is shot through, too, of nuggets of hobo wisdom, such as the "only thing that's worse than a thing that don't work is a thing that almost works" and, on law and America, "If it's going to tell me what to do and what not to do, it better be on hand... This is just dirt we're standing on, son. Dirt and stone. Ain't no lines in the earth."

Mr Shivers is bleak, mythic and bloody: the most thrilling novel of its ouvre since The Road. In fact, the two narratives have a great deal in common, although the veins of genre certainly run deeper in Mr Shivers than in Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer prizewinner. But then, as the preacher says, "sometimes the road goes through places that are... not normal. The road is more than just dirt."

Robert Jackson Bennett is a staggeringly persuasive argument for the infinite possibilities of the horror novel and his debut is a landmark for the genre. Mr Shivers will take your breath away.


Mr Shivers
by Robert Jackson Bennett
January 2010, Orbit

Buy this book from / /
The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading


  1. I have got to read this book! (and while I'm at it I think 100thousand Kingdoms must also be mine)

  2. Niall, great review. Everything I read hear make me hate you and your skill at stringing words together.

    Sounds like a definite 5/5. Any drawbacks at all?

  3. And then I go and type "hear". I have severe hononym dislexia, I swear.


    I know the right one to use. I don't default to one. I just ALWAYS write the opposite.

  4. @Celine - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is mine already, was from day one, though given that it's one of a very few books I've bought lately rather than been sent for review, I'm valiantly holding off on reading it till I can wade through all the fiction I've been asked for an opinion of; always a fine feeling, and there are lots of folks I'd really rather not disappoint. Not that I'm complaining! An embarassment of riches is what this.

    @Patrick - Thanks so much for the kind words. A definite 5/5 for me, at least, though I know some readers haven't taken to Mr Shivers as I did. In terms of drawbacks? Well, perhaps some aspects of the conclusion weren't quite perfect, but it'd be spoiling the book hugely to go into more detail than that - and the drawbacks are pedantic in any case. But since you asked.

  5. I only mention 100Thousand because I thought you'd reviewed it - then I went looking for the review and realised it wasn't you! Must have been that Flory fella :0)Either way - sounds like I've two great books waiting on me. I'm even going to break my self imposed diet of Victorian sci-fi for them (already ordered both from bookdepository! Yikes! I've no discipline.)

  6. Just finished this little gem up. I read it primarily based on your review and the setting it promised. I have to say that, for me, the ending was the great redeemer. I liked the story well enough, but that ending will stick with me awhile.


  7. Jonathan - right? Hell of an ending. Hell of a book throughout, I thought, but certainly much enriched by its revelatory last chapters.

    Anyway, I read your write-up yesterday, and I'm pleased and relieved Mr Shivers did it for you eventually. Always a good day when I've helped spread the good word about a good book. Thanks for stopping on by to let me know! :)