‘Black Bark’ and ‘The Blood Drip’ by Brian Evenson

Something’s wrong,” thought Karsten, “but the worst part of it is that I don’t know for certain what or how much.”

Two great stories in eerie dialogue with each other. And while it may be a bit of a cheat to include two-for-one, once one has read them it is hard to think of them as separate entities. 

Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses is a superb example of how to construct a story collection. It’s like an echo chamber, full of strange returns. ‘Black Bark’ and ‘The Blood Drip’ bookend it and bring things full circle. While Evenson is nominally a ‘horror’ writer (and can get pretty gruesome; see, for example, his extraordinary novel about a mutilation cult, Last Days) he plays with genre in fascinating ways. ‘Black Bark’ is nominally a Western. The setting for ‘The Blood Drip’ might be medieval or post-apocalyptic. But it’s the deadpan absurdity and the creeping sense of dread that characterises his best work that I find so compelling. His prose is like Raymond Chandler crossed with Samuel Beckett. 

Evenson’s defining quality is, I think, a sense of profound doubt. One strategy he uses again and again to great effect is to have a character assert a particular notion as fact and to then immediately question that very fact. This persistent undermining of certainty means that we find ourselves adrift, questioning everything, seeking resolution (which because Evenson is also the master of the open-ended ending, we never get). Dark and brilliant. 

‘Black Bark’ was first published in Caketrain. ‘The Blood Drip’ was first published in Granta, and is available to read here. Both are collected in A Collapse of Horses, Coffee House Press, 2016

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