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