In the Shadows of Men by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book might be hard to find (at least in print) as it's a limited Subterranean Press edition, and they are not cheap. However, if you prefer e-books (I have some, but I like to hold the physical book in my hands) it is available at the usual digital suspects. I say that because I think it's flown under the radar a bit, and I want to give it a push.
On the surface, this is an American ghost story, taking place on the plains of west Texas. Bear Pugh and his unnamed brother come to Coahora, to renovate an old motel that once belonged to their great-uncle Corbin. Their goals are simple: Bear bought the property from a cousin for a pittance, and means to build it up, hold on to it long enough to make some money, and get out. He asks his brother, who is going through some domestic upheaval (his wife, tired of his emotional detachment, packed up their child and left) to come help him out. The two of them start tearing up and remodeling the hotel. They also start seeing a big man in a white tee shirt walking across the property at night, and hearing young women speaking with a Spanish accent from a basement where there is no basement, and hearing the wails of a crying baby drift across the grounds.....
Yes, there are ghosts here, and a horrible past that slowly comes to light, with a growing sense of creeping dread written in simple, straightforward prose. However, the monster is not the ghost of the Pugh brothers' great-uncle, nor the things he did. The monster is the theme of (white) male entitlement and toxic masculinity, and what it makes men do.
"The things you've done," I say. "The things you want. Listen to me. They're not things you really want. They're things he wants [Corbin's ghost]. Things he wants you to do, so he's using you."
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," he weeps. "A house. A wife. A job. A home."
"You can still have that," I say. "We both can."
"I can't," he says. "Not now. It's all changed so much. A man can't get what's owed to him. All that's left is for him to take it."
What's so frightening about this is that in real life the ghost, and the pull it has on the characters' minds, doesn't have to be there. Far too many men, falling under the illusion of what they think the world owes them, repeat these very words and live these twisted ideals, and they're not under any supernatural influence at all.
The best horror reflects back a razor-sharp mirror of our current life, held up for all to see. This book is all the more chilling because of its deceptively simple, dare I say blue-collar prose style. There are no fancy explanations or elevated academic lingo; there is just the two Pugh brothers, Bear and the unnamed narrator, slowly falling under the spell of their great-uncle's ghost and the horrid way he thinks the world should be. The narrator escapes this trap at the end, vowing to go back to Houston, to his wife and child, and learn how to give instead of take.
This is a scary, thoughtful book, and it's well worth seeking out.
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