Little boy vanishes in chilling ‘Bad Man’
Dathan Auerbach’s pitch-black “Bad Man,” a horror thriller that preys on familial fears, is a study of the lonely existence of a social outcast whose life turns on one tragic day in his childhood.
Auerbach keeps the reader on unsettling ground with this nihilistic tale (Doubleday, 400 pp., ★★★★) about a hard-luck north Florida youngster named Ben and his obsessive efforts to find his brother Eric.
At 15, Ben lost sight of 3-year-old Eric for a few fateful minutes in a local grocery store, and the little guy vanished. Overweight and physically hampered by a bum leg (the result of a childhood accident), Ben is still looking for Eric five years later when he gets a job working nights at that same grocery on the stock crew.
His family needs the money, though neither of his parents approves, especially his stepmother, Deidra, who pines and sings for her lost little boy 24/7.
The store gives Ben a real sense of companionship that he’s been missing most of his life – he grows close to a bunch of co-workers, from aging baker lady Beverly to wild child Marty, whose own backwoods family includes a drugaddict mom and her abusive boyfriend.
But his work also is a haven for darkness: a monstrous cardboard baler lives up to its dangerous potential, Eric’s beloved plush rhino Stampie mysteriously shows itself, Ben’s shady boss couldn’t be any less helpful, and symbols start appearing that seem to have a connection with Eric’s disappearance.
Ben is surrounded by enigmatic figures who are just as much a part of the mystery as what happened to little Eric, yet the protagonist is an unreliable sort himself. He begins to distrust his own memories as the situation around him spirals out of control, though Ben’s righteous compulsion keeps one engaged in his mission.
That’s pretty important considering how insidiously disturbing “Bad Man” gets: Hope is defined in one passage as “an anesthetic,” “a sneaky narcotic” and “the one horror that lives in us.”
Despite some gallows humor and the occasional male bonding, the novel is wickedly effective in creating a feeling of doom. Coping with a missing child is, luckily, something most will never experience. But Auerbach paints a chilling portrait in which it’s easy to imagine the pained confusion of a father, the haunted longing of a mother, and the never-ending guilt and innocence lost of a boy forever changed by a moment of irresponsibility.
Despite late plot twists that make the story unnecessarily convoluted, “Bad Man” delivers an unexpected gut punch and saves its darkest deeds for an unnerving end.