‘Song for the Unraveling of the World’ by Brian Evenson

As a reader, I tear through Evenson’s stories with relish, finding enjoyment in being repeatedly unnerved—how will he get under my skin this time? And as a writer, I find his work offers valuable craft lessons, challenging, for instance, the notion that for fiction to be successful it must include a protagonist who undergoes some sort of change. In an interview with BOMB magazine, Evenson said, “It so rarely happens that people actually change in a meaningful way. I’ve always been a little skeptical of character development, but then what do you do with fiction? My sense is that maybe it’s about conveying mental states and changing the reader.” His characters may not evolve, but their situations often do, and for the worse; they dwell in realities whose troubling instability does seem to infect the reader, too, by the end. In this story, a missing daughter’s voice seems to emanate from the walls of a house. Her parents, no longer together, have radically different ideas about what’s behind her disappearance. The story gives us access only to the father’s interiority; according to him, he woke up that morning to find her gone. But as he searches for her, hearing her eerie singing but unable to pinpoint its source, we enter “Tell-Tale Heart” territory, and his account of events becomes suspect. Is he a frantic, devoted father or a monster? Why not both? 

First published in Bourbon Penn #15, 2018 and collected in Song for the Unraveling of the World, Coffee House, 2019

‘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

‘The Blood Drip’ by Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson represents a bridge (or perhaps a joint) between horror and Avant Garde fiction better than practically any other working writer. The influence of Poe in his work is naturally evident, but his command of formal elements of writing and their effects is brilliantly postmodern. Evenson’s typical mode is ominous confusion shot through with delicate strands of deadpan humor – as with M. John Harrison, Evenson’s weird horror derives from Kafka. But one can also see, in the details, the likeness of German-language experimental postwar writers like Arno Schmidt and Thomas Bernhard, whose dense and fractured prose reflected the cognitive dissonance of having lived alongside atrocity.
It’s hard to describe and harder to replicate the ways in which Evenson’s tendencies – clipped sentences, purposefully minimal description, interiority that never quite seems on the level – come together to create atmospheres of anxiety and dread. A gauzy, bad-dream quality pervades; it is as though, through the airtight perspective of the characters, everything beyond the immediate description of the world is cast in dim light. As in Paul Bowles’ work, there’s always a sense that the characters have been caught in a trap they can’t grasp. Sometimes the reader knows this before the characters do, sometimes the characters realize it, and it doesn’t matter.
‘The Blood Drip’ fundamentally is just a great, unnerving weird tale. It’s as close to a Lynch tribute in prose that you could ask for (and why wouldn’t you ask?) Notice the second sentence, in which Evenson employs a signature feint: The first sentence states a fact, the second sentence contradicts and complicates it. Already we are unmoored. In classic Evenson fashion, the context as given is so minimal they ought to sell it at Ikea: Nils and Karsten (Evenson almost always uses conspicuously Germanic names) had designs to steal something from a fortified town but were rebuffed by a hail of stones outside its walls. Karsten managed to escape, barely, but Nils was struck down. 
Karsten is overwhelmed with guilt, and goes back to retrieve Nils, who may or may not be dead, but is caught and injured by the stones thrown from the town. When he comes to, no one is on the ramparts and Nils’s body is gone. Injured but conscious, Karsten gets lost in the woods and makes camp to hold off the cold. He catches fire accidentally and passes out.
From there, the story pitches wholly into dream logic. The return of Nils (or something that looks like Nils) and the course of events following could be the product of a fevered and guilty mind… or it could be something else entirely.
Evenson’s frequent remit, by his own admission, concerns one fundamental question in horror fiction, articulated by Eugene Thacker in his writings on the philosophy of horror: “Is something wrong with me, or is something wrong with the world?” H.P. Lovecraft could describe (or rather, refrain from describing) mind-shattering experiences but Evenson’s surety of craft allows him to describe, in detail, what it’s like when reality becomes a hostile thing.

First published in Granta, October 2014. Collected in A Collapse of Horses, Coffee House Press 2016. Available to read here

‘Two Brothers’ by Brian Evenson

Ben Marcus assigned this story to me when I took a class on the short story with him while studying at Columbia. I read it all on the long subway ride from my apartment in Brooklyn uptown to campus. It is a uniquely terrifying and beautiful story, such that I audibly gasped on the 1 train when one of the bloodiest and horrifying incidents occurs (there are many). Evenson grew up a devout Mormon, and his stories and novels are filled with the grisly imagery and language of frontier America, and of the foundation of Mormonism. The situations are Biblical – there is blood sacrifice, patricide, incest – combined with the surreal sense that the house the two brothers inhabit will not let them out. Evenson’s books can be hard to find, but I urge you to please seek out his work. 

Originally published in Contagion. Collected in O. Henry Award: Prize Stories, 1998 and Altmann’s Tongue, 2002, University of Nebraska Press

‘Three Indignities’ by Brian Evenson

This is pretty real-world horror for Evenson, who often strays into more supernatural territory. People who’ve been around hospitals a bit might get a familiar tingle. Evenson is a master of unease. Read his whole collection A Collapse of Horses to see how he can use the most innocuous thing, the slightest speck, to open the door a crack to terror.

First published in Unsaid. Collected in A Collapse of Horses, Coffee House Press, 2016. Read online at The Center for Fiction here

‘White Square’ by Brian Evenson

The story begins: “The black square on the table is meant to represent Gahern’s estranged wife; it is presented as such at Gahern’s request. The gray square beside it stands in for the black square’s new husband, also presented as such at Gahern’s request. Though Hauser has offered him the full gamut of shapes and colors, Gahern insists upon remaining unrepresented. Nothing stands in for him.”

I can’t even begin to describe where it goes from there: it’s absurd and philosophical at the same time, a murder-mystery reduced to two-dimensional shapes. It both destroys and reaffirms any faith that you have in fiction’s ability to have purpose. I missed a train because I was so engrossed in this book, costing me over $80 to catch the next one. It was worth it.

First published in Post Road Magazine, F/W 2001. Collected in The Wavering Knife, University of Alabama Press, 2004. Can be read online here.