There is something all together unnerving about Dathan Auerbach’s Bad Man: A Novel that is difficult to put into words.
It could be that the focus of its particular brand of evil is a small town grocery store. It could be that, especially for those of us who live in rural parts of the South, the characters are all too familiar. It could be that the central character, Ben, is not the typical heroic type of protagonist we see all too often in contemporary horror novels.
Or perhaps, it’s a combination of all these things that come together to breed terror that is so foreign to our own experience that it makes us fear those all too familiar faces and places we visit every day.
Set in the humid Florida panhandle, Bad Man, tells the story of Ben. One day Ben takes his younger brother, Eric, to the store with him to pick up a few things.
Eric is having a bad day in the way that all small children do from time to time resulting in a flare of temper and hurt feelings. And then something terrible happens.
Ben succumbs to a sudden splitting headache and closes his eyes for only a moment. When he opens them, Eric is gone, but not just gone. He has vanished completely and no one else in the store even noticed.
Flash forward five years.
Ben’s stepmother has become a recluse, unable to leave the home. His father is falling behind on the bills, and though Ben still looks for his brother every day, he needs to find a job.
The only place hiring?
You guessed it: the very store from which his brother disappeared all those years ago.
As he joins the night crew stocking shelves and straightening displays overnight, he begins to realize that his brother’s disappearance might not be the only strange occurrence in the unassuming store with a paranoid boss. No, there is a presence, a feeling, that seeps over those very same shelves and hides in the shadows just out of sight.
Auerbach’s novel is a prime and rather glorious example of contemporary Southern Gothic storytelling. His characters, as mentioned before, are all too real, and their day to day life is lived in dirt and destitution.
You can actually feel the sweat roll down your back between the shoulder blades as the heat beats down from a sun untroubled and unchallenged by the smallest errant breeze while Ben marches up and down the small town roads following leads that become more enigmatic by the day.
We feel his frustration and fear as he must face the men and women who have been beaten down by life for so long that their only form of communication emerges in violent words and actions.
We succumb to his paranoia as he stands in front of the rusting, lethal cardboard baler in the backroom of the grocery store whose shrieks and moans seem almost human.
And, at times, we even feel Ben’s palpable rage at all of these things.
And underneath it all, Auerbach slowly infuses the reader with a steady and growing terror.
This is the kind of novel that I warn people not to devour in one sitting. There are things in this book that one needs time to process before moving on to the next chapter not only to avoid being overwhelmed, but to also make sure that details have not been missed.
Secrets lie between the words and inside the thoughts of everyone in Ben’s life, and at times I, personally, felt compelled by some unknown force to help him uncover them.
Auerbach has drawn comparisons to Stephen King. In fact, more than one have compared Bad Man to The Shining, and I think that comparison rings true.
On a deeper, more subversive level, however, I would call the work and characters the spiritual descendants of Cormac McCarthy and Poppy Z. Brite, and believe me when I say I never thought I’d write those two names in the same sentence.
Bad Man: A Novel is available now via Amazon and other major book sellers in both hardback and digital formats.