Novellas are a strange animal. Too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel, they exist in this odd gray area between the two. That’s historically been a problem for marketers, of course, although that’s lessened in the Kindle and e-book era. It remains a problem, though, for readers. What should you expect when you read a novella? Is it going to have some of the complexity of a novel – multiple plot threads, rich development – but simplified? Or is it going to be like a long short story, with a single thread, just extended? (For examples of each of these, you could probably use a few by Stephen King: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” fits the former well, as does “The Mist”; meanwhile, “The Sun Dog” is a nice example of the latter.)
The problem, such as it is, with “The Man on the Bench” is that I expected it to be the former, and it turned out to be the latter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you; there’s something exciting about a nice, pulpy horror novel, and this one has a great hook, in which three boys growing up in a small town in the 1930’s start seeing a man sitting on a bench, overlooking a local lake…and then they realize that no one else seems to see him. That’s a great eerie image to start off the story, and Swartwood takes in a fairly wild direction that I definitely didn’t see coming.
What’s frustrating, though, is that “The Man on the Bench” seems like it’s going to be…more. The book opens with some great scene-setting, and some wonderful material about a bully the boys have been dealing with, all of which makes for a great slice-of-life tale, or maybe some coming-of-age material. And as the horror elements started to creep in, I wondered if what I would get would be some great blending of those two aspects, something along the lines of It (albeit a far less ambitious version).
Instead, about halfway through, Swartwood slams on the gas, and his story just moves like a rocket, as though he felt like he needed to get through the exposition and investigation in a hurry. The explanation for the man is conveyed in a pretty big chunk of exposition, and although the book then transitions to a pretty great, bizarre, surreal finale that I liked a lot, there’s a sense that this middle section is cut down from something far more ambitious and interesting. Indeed, even Swartwood’s touching ending feels like it belongs to a different version of this book than we got, something more about the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood in the face of horrors.
All of which sounds like I’m being really negative about this book, and I don’t really want to do that. It’s a pretty solid read, and I was hooked pretty much throughout; although I found the exposition dump pretty disappointing, the beginning and end are both pretty fantastic. More than that, Swartwood makes his characters work well here, investing us in these people quickly and efficiently, and bringing this small town to life in a minimum of pages. (Given Swartwood’s talent for what he calls “hint fiction” – stories of 25 words or less – that shouldn’t be a surprise.) It’s just that there’s a sense that, outside of this pretty solid and fun novella, there’s a much better novel version of it that I would have really loved to have seen. For what it is, though? It’s pretty solid – creepy, engaging, well-written, well-crafted. I just wish it could decide what it wants to be…or become something more.