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In the Shadows of Men

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In the Shadows of Men

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Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Publisher: Subterranean Press, 2020

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Horror
Sub-Genre Tags: Ghosts
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In the desolate flats of west Texas, two brothers purchase an old motel with the intent of renovating it and making a fortune off the population surge brought about by the fracking boom. Though each man is lured there by the promise of wealth, they are also fleeing something: a history of trauma, of failure, of family abuse, and shame.

But the motel proves to have a history of its own. Once the business of a distant relative of theirs, Corbin Pugh, the brothers begin to discover signs that it might have been more than just a motel back during the wildcatter days of the last oil boom.

As they live and labor in its dusty halls, fighting the crawling feeling that they are not alone here, they begin to wonder: what kind of a man was Corbin Pugh? What happened in the rooms he owned, so many decades ago? And is the motel changing them, warping them to become more ruthlessly ambitious and brutal - or is this what men must become in order to survive on the edge of civilization?


To travel across west Texas at night is to pass through bursts of bright and seas of shadow, these sudden punctuations of towns clinging to the highways as they slash through the scrub. It is a place of tremendous opposites and inverses. An aging, unlit asphalt road will suddenly flow into a smooth, cement highway, fresh and new and lit up white. Then you will pass through countless tiny villages that are seemingly abandoned, all crumbling grain silos and mid-century town squares with the shopfronts boarded up, only to find the city at the next intersection is a booming hive, its gas stations fresh and new and crowded with muddy men in square-toed boots.

To travel through west Texas is to travel through a strikingly bipolar place, an empty land that has somehow gone mad overnight, suddenly teeming with trucks and truckers and workers and trailers as dozens of companies converge on the desert flats to plumb the depths of the Permian. You don't grasp the whole of it until you come to the frack sites themselves and see the gas burning, these giant, coiling flares unscrolling from the towers, whipping in the wind like brilliant windsocks. The light is so bright, flooding the landscape around the towers for hundreds of yards, making the many shadows dance like witches in the woods.

You see one flare, and then another, and another. Then dozens of them, hundreds of them. A land studded with giant candles burning in the darkness, apparently unobserved, unwatched. As I drive through the frack sites I am reminded of votive candles flickering in a devotional. Yet the flares are curiously greasy at the ends, I find, an oily, unpleasant glimmer - a reminder, perhaps, that what is being burned has spent millions of years sleeping miles and miles under the skin of the earth.

It was here long before we came, but in a handful of years we will eliminate this curious geological phenomenon. We will drain it dry and we will burn it up and then move on.

These sites are the finished places, the sites where the work has been done. At the unfinished places you see the man-camps, the fleets and fleets of trailers and trucks where the roughnecks and the construction workers and the sand haulers sleep. A curious herd of men, migratory and nomadic, slipping from desert site to desert site bringing their water and electricity and creature comforts with them.

They are here, of course, for the same reason I am here, for the same reason all of us are here: to make money. We are here to wring money from the sands and stones of this unforgiving place. And I mean to do it.

Copyright © 2020 by Robert Jackson Bennett


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