Book Review: Bad Man

BAD MAN

Author: Dathan Auerbach
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Doubleday

Reddit horror sensation Dathan Auerbach delivers a devilishly dark novel about a young boy who goes missing, and the brother who won’t stop looking for him.


It’s every family’s worst nightmare: the disappearance of a child. In a small town in panhandle Florida, one such tragedy sets into motion the events of Bad Man. What happens when the mystery stretches into years? That’s the nightmare that Ben, whose missing brother is the great mystery of the book, finds himself trapped within at the beginning of this story. Well known on the r/NoSleep subreddit for his spooky tales, Dathan Auerbach crafts a book more suspense that horror with southern gothic flair. His first book, Pen Pal, was a collection of his internet stories. Packaged together, they form an eerie narrative about murky childhood memories. Bad Man expands many of the same themes, following the disappearance of a young child and a family in the aftermath.

Five years ago, Ben’s little brother disappeared from the bathroom of a local grocery store. Eric was three years old. Ben hasn’t stopped searching from him, despite lacking resources and experiencing endless setbacks. There isn’t much for him outside this search. Very quickly, we learn that Ben doesn’t have many friends and he struggles to make connections with anyone. Furthering this alienation, Eric’s disappearance has left his family shattered and struggled to cope even years after.  Unable to find work anywhere else, Ben takes an overnight job at the same grocery store where Eric disappeared. Only then, strange things start happening. Ben realizes there may be more beneath the surface of this seemingly mundane store and the odd mix of employees who spend the evenings there.

An unreliable narrator, Ben offers the readers a glimpse into the psyche of someone struggling with his own past and recollections. It’s easy to see things as we want them to be in the aftermath of a tragedy, especially when facing certain truths hurts more than we can handle. Ben struggles to make sense of his memories and behavior. His obsession with finding his brother takes him to dark places before the truth begins to emerge. It makes him a compelling character at the beginning. As the book progresses, his actions (and frustrating inaction) feel contrived to control the slow pace of the plot more than to increase the suspense.

Auerbach does a remarkable job creating and maintaining the oppressive, swampy atmosphere. The book makes a modern grocery store into an unexpectedly perfect southern gothic setting, rich with mystery and suspense. The imagery sets an oppressive, heavy tone for the events of the book, leading the readers to feel just as helpless and worn as the protagonist. The writing is rich and the characters sympathetic and complex.

The problem is in the pacing.  The book is simply too long. The first two hundred pages read as larger plot elements being set into motion, but they ultimately go nowhere. Character arcs aren’t resolved and simply drift with the main character’s focus. It leaves frustrating questions unanswered and rendered unimportant. Plot threads are dangled, and red herrings stagnate after the first handful of times they are presented. It’s a long slog through rambling details that don’t matter and side quests with no consequence. Unfortunately, it’s a frustrating experience for the reader.

Verdict

While the core of Bad Man is atmospheric and interesting, the book would have worked better as a novella. There’s simply too much introduced without satisfactory explanation or resolution, leaving the reader muddling through a lot of text with no clear path to the final ending. The most interesting revelations and actual twists all happen within the last fifty pages of the novel. Even those are vague and relatively baffling in the context of the story’s tone. Bad Man has all the making of a great southern gothic yarn yet never quite put those pieces together.

The ending is too disjointed to be satisfying. Though enough tidbits were sprinkled through the story to justify it, it just didn’t work for me. It was an abrupt tonal shift and ultimately didn’t have the gravitas to pull it off. As a fan of Auerbach’s earlier work, there’s a lot of potential and room for growth. While great on atmosphere and tone, Bad Man struggles to find its balance with pacing suspense and crafting a compelling story.

Bad Man is out now.

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