The Handyman, by Bentley Little: a book review

 

Handyman

I read my first Bentley Little horror novel in 1997. It was The Ignored and that was the year it was released. I was in the process of changing jobs, moving from a retail outfit that operated in the American Northeast to one that operated on a national scale. I was training in Tennessee and living out of hotel rooms at the time. It seemed right to read a book by an author I’d never read before at the same time everything else in my life was changing.

I liked that first Little novel. It was creepy and weird, and it reminded me of the best of early Stephen King so much that, for a time, I harbored the suspicion that Bentley Little was just another of King’s pseudonyms, ala Richard Bachman. I no longer believe this to be true. I think this temporary delusion is a compliment to both authors, however.

After reading that 1997 novel, I searched for, and read, eight of the nine novels he published before that one. I still haven’t read Death Instinct, which he published under the pseudonym Phillip Emmons; I’m not sure why. Then, as they were released in subsequent years, I read the six novels that followed. I missed the next couple, then read The Academy in 2008, and then missed the next five. Little has been prolific. I also read one of his short story collections, aptly named The Collection, and enjoyed him in the short form as well.

The novel I’m reviewing here is The Handyman, which was published in 2017. It’s the first of Bentley Little’s novels that I’ve read as an e-book on my Kindle Fire. I read the entire thing while Sharon and I were on vacation.

I will say this about Bentley Little. I like his writing, and I’ve frequently recommended his work to horror fans, including my own mother. I even recall sending my mom one of Little’s novels—The Mailman, I think—but I don’t recall what she ever said about it. It may have been a bit too weird for her. Make no mistake about it: Little is exceedingly weird, and much of his work can be uncomfortably graphic, both in terms of violence and depictions of sexuality. He excels at creepy, but frequently pushes the envelope to genuinely scary. I’ve become harder to scare as I’ve gotten older, but Little is sometimes able to scare me. A lot. Even to the point of occasionally infecting my dreams. In my opinion, that’s high praise for a horror writer.

One complaint about Little’s work that I could make—and it’s really more of an observation than a complaint—is the some of his work is similar enough that I get the individual plots confused. There are similar themes at work, similar settings, and much of his stories end with a group of people banding together to defeat the Big Bad. Again, I’m not really complaining, because what he’s selling is right in my wheelhouse. But, I guess his novels did begin to seem similar enough to me that I was able to miss seven of then without even being aware that I missed them. I plan to go back and rectify that. In fact, it turns out that I already have a paperback copy of The Vanishing on one of my shelves, so I will read that one in the near future. Of course, as I try to play catch-up, Little will keep writing and publishing more. It’s a good problem to have.

Enough preamble. Let’s talk about the book I’m reviewing.

The Handyman is a frame story that begins, in the present, with an adult Daniel Martin, who is a real estate agent. Much of the first section of the novel is told as a flashback to Daniel’s childhood, from the moment a handyman named Frank came into his life and proceeded to change it forever. Frank is an independent contractor who lies a lot, steals from his clients, and includes such things as dead animals and even people in the things he builds. Frank, as it turned out, went native while he was serving in Vietnam, and he learned a trade that never should have been brought back to the States.

While I read about the haphazard structures built by Frank (who changed his last name frequently as he fled from place to place), I thought about the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Eventually, Little name-checked the place in the novel as well, so it seems I picked up on the inspiration correctly. Weird and eerie wasn’t Little’s ultimate goals, however. He ups the ante into pure horror as Daniel’s family members come to horrific ends, and the corpse of a child turns up in another Frank house across the street from Daniel’s family home. It becomes evident that Frank is bad news and is truly a Big Bad, practicing Vietnamese necromancy along with contractor fraud.

The novel then takes a strange jog into individual vignettes about how Frank has affected other people across the US over the years. I suppose this section of the novel is necessary to show how Frank the Handyman has affected many more people than just Daniel. This ratchets up the horror quotient because it affects everyone. It may even be building to an apocalyptic event.  We are also given a little backstory into how Frank became whatever it is he becomes.

The last section of the novel is about how Daniel, his girlfriend, a childhood friend similarly affected by a Frank project, and two writers from a ghost-hunting reality show team together to defeat Frank. We never really get that close to some members of this Scooby Gang, so it should come as no surprise to you that at least of a couple of them could die. But, the final showdown comes at Frank’s magnum opus, which he has built in his home state of Texas, where everything is bigger by reputation.

Do our heroes emerge victorious? I’ll leave you hanging on that one, but you’ll probably guess correctly.

Is The Handyman some great piece of literature? Nope. Not even close. It’s a piece of entertainment, and it succeeds wonderfully as such. It’s not the best Bentley Little novel I’ve read either, even though it has all of his hallmarks. There are portions of this novel that I’ll continue to think about long after I’ve moved on to other things. Perhaps I’ll even dream about them.

This is a work of supernatural horror, and not everything in it makes good, logical sense. If you want everything to be explained to you, you will be disappointed. And you have been warned.

For me, Bentley Little is to horror what Philip K. Dick was to science fiction in his day. Slightly off-kilter and (here’s that word again) weird, with a lot of bizarre, even nightmarish imagery. But, his writing is accessible, even good.

I’ve already said that I’ve read roughly two-thirds of all of his many novels, so you know I recommend the author. I also recommend this book if you haven’t been warned off by anything else I’ve said.

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