If there’s one thing readers of horror fiction know to be true, it’s that old, isolated motels are not the place to go if you’re looking to get your life together.
Especially if said motel is brimming with secrets.
Especially if the person seeking sanctuary is bringing his own demons along for the ride.
Robert Jackson Bennett gets a surprising amount of mileage out of this familiar setup in In the Shadows of Men, his new novella from Subterranean Press. Chalk it up to Bennett’s strong narrative and character-building skills — he’s able to create believable characters and craft atmosphere and tension, and he does it in about half the pages it takes many writers.
Bennett’s story follows two brothers who’ve obtained an old motel in a desolate stretch of Texas. The motel was previously owned by relative of theirs, a man they didn’t know but who, they soon learn, had a less than savory reputation. As they work to strip down and rebuild the motel, which they plan to use to house workers flocking to Texas for work in the frakking industry, the old building begins to reveal more about its history in signs physical (old photos, a mysterious hatch in one of the rooms) and incorporeal (a man in white who lurks in the shadows, a woman’s voice crying for help).
The men react to these reveals in different ways. Bear, a recovering addict who sees this motel as his last opportunity to get the life he feels he deserves, throws himself into his work….and into the local nightlife. Bear’s brother, who came to the motel to help his brother, but also as a way to flee problems at home, decides to flee again — this time back to a wife and child who barely know him. That works out about as well as could be predicted, and soon he’s back in Texas, just in time for things to come to a head.
Bennett wrings a lot of tension out of the book’s isolated setting and the eerie discoveries the brothers make. The brothers themselves are both flawed, but written in such a way that you can’t help but feel some empathy for them both.
In the Shadows of Men is a solid book, a quick read but one that invites future re-reads, and a welcome addition to horror’s long line of haunted motel stories.