(M.J.E. / Writings / Book Reviews / Horror /
Bentley LITTLE: The Mailman (1991)
Review by Michael Edwards - also appears on Amazon.com
Appears on Amazon.com:
Date: 13 May, 2000
Heading: Fairly convincing, but (like life) doesn't always make sense.
So far I have read only three of Little's novels - The Store, The
Mailman, and The Ignored - but I think I'm beginning to see a pattern to his
work: a community of some sort that, to begin with, appears quite cosy and
friendly, and some entity from outside - the chain store or the new mailman, in
two of these three novels - intrudes, and gradually begins to subvert the
people's way of life and destroy their sense of community. (The Ignored
doesn't quite fit this pattern.)
Things start to go wrong. It's only little things to begin with, which
hardly attract anyone's attention; but, as time goes on, these little things
that are not quite right get bigger and bigger. People increasingly show signs
of unease and anger, but they seem to partly acclimatize to the new order of
things, a little like the proverbial frog that, if heated in water slowly
enough, boils to death instead of leaping out of the warming water.
This may account for why people don't take the action one would normally
expect, such as going to higher authorities about obviously wrong things, if the
local authorities won't act - or, if they do try to appeal to higher authority,
they seem to give up quickly after hitting the first bureaucratic obstacles.
This lack of action in the face of trouble is a point that this and other books
by Little may be criticized for. Indeed, characters seem to rationalize the
events, thinking up reasons why things are not so wrong after all, and saying
the strange events are just a coincidence - but they can't accept this entirely,
and seem to dissipate their fear by lashing out at each other, instead of
following up with higher authorities; this gets bad enough to rip the entire
community to warring pieces. Little does mention the malaise that sweeps over
the entire town of Willis, so the possible criticism about not doing enough
about things does not seem entirely justified; I think Little was aware of this,
and made it an intrinsic part of the plot. He appears to depict characters as
accepting this as part of the new status quo and not doing as much about it as
you might expect, as if the very fabric of reality has changed, and perhaps he
deliberately used this to create a surreal atmosphere as the society he's
writing about gradually decays.
Little seems to construct his whole story around a very specialized
situation - the sinister mailman - and builds up as much as possible on aspects
of the mailman's work or attributes. The mail service (in its increasingly
twisted manifestation) seems to be a microcosm around which the whole story
revolves - quite effectively, I think. The whole weird scenario is on the whole
fairly convincing, although perhaps some of the more bizarre elements towards
the end of the novel creak a little, as if the limits of the edifice are
strained a little too far.
I think the elements that hint at a supernatural influence - that is,
unexplained strange events which definitely violate laws of nature - sometimes
seem a little less convincing, but it didn't stop me reading on with interest.
It is probably far more difficult to write a story where the supernatural
mingles with the ordinary, than to write a story which right from the start is
frankly based on supernatural premises. But I couldn't help wondering if the
story might have been a little better if the author had left out events of this
sort, but developed every possible horrific aspect of the mailman's activities
to the hilt.
What about the problem that the mailman apparently has no motive for his
actions? Well, looked at in isolation, many of his acts seem to make no sense
whatsoever - but if you look at it overall, it seems to me that he was an
embodiment of evil: everything he did was designed to put fear into people, to
divide them from each other, to turn them against one another. He appeared at
times to be a psychic vampire who lived off the emotional energy of other
people's fear or pain or suffering. But he was also a mailman, and apparently
nothing but a mailman, who embodied the spirit or essence of the postal service
(a postal service gone wrong), but appeared to do nothing other than postal work
- so he could only use the mail to wreak his evil.
And so it was appropriate and quite logical that the people of Willis
turned his techniques against him, and used the mail to destroy him - and
indeed, because he appeared to be nothing more than a mailman, this probably
would have been the only way they could destroy him.
The book does have a lot of loose ends, and fails to explain many bizarre
things - perhaps rather more than I would like. But I suspect that's just the
way Little writes, and perhaps he intends to illustrate the fact that in real
life things are not usually resolved neatly, with all loose ends tied up.
Perhaps he's telling us that evil itself ultimately doesn't make sense.
Personally I prefer a bit more explanation, and I think it is just brilliant
when someone like Dean Koontz is able to build up a truly weird situation (see
The House of Thunder, Sole Survivor, or Lightning), and milks every drop
of suspense and fear out of it - but at the end he is able to give a completely
satisfactory and convincing explanation for everything that's happened.
In this I feel that Little is a bit behind Koontz - but that is perhaps
only a matter of taste. With a few reservations, I think Little has portrayed
his basically improbable situation quite convincingly, and the book certainly
keeps you reading, which is a fairly stiff test for a good novel.
By the way, Bentley Little's short story "The Mailman" is not related to this novel, beyond the general idea of someone having a pathological phobia of a particular mailman. But it would appear likely that the short story, which preceded the novel by a few years, provided inspiration of a general sort for the novel.
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Original text copyright (C) 2000, by Michael Edwards.
More material on this web site related to Little
Book listing for Bentley Little
Amazon.com customer reviews
Introduction - Front page, which leads to Contents
Web Site of Michael Edwards - Contents
Writings by Michael Edwards
Bentley Little: The Mailman (this page)
This page created on Saturday, 13 May, 2000;
last modified on Monday, 24 September, 2001.