Brian Evenson writes great horror fiction by boldly defying the conventions of horror writing
The past year has been a good one for readers of Brian Evenson’s genre-defying fiction.
In late 2011, Astrophil Press reissued his collection Contagion And Other Stories; last month saw the release of his post-apocalyptic novel Immobility. Now comes Windeye, the sixth collection of his short fiction to appear in print. His fans may need some time to catch up with such productivity (and they can catch up with him in person tonight as part of “Laughter in the Dark: The Comedy of Noir” with Tim Horvath and Bradford Morrow at McNally Jackson bookstore).
Evenson’s appeal is twofold: there’s enough grotesque imagery and moments of raw tension in his fiction to draw in horror fans aplenty, but his investigations into (and use of) language, along with his treatment of obsession and epistemology have also earned him the reputation as a writer’s writer. (His advocates include Jonathan Lethem, Peter Straub, and Blake Butler.) After a lengthy exploration of a fictional crime and its investigation, the writer-narrator of the story “Knowledge” comments that, “I myself am no longer interested in the crime so much as what it can tell us about our characters.”
Evenson’s relationship to horror is much the same: while he can certainly unnerve us, his fiction is less about the source of an unidentified sound on the other side of a wall than the implications for the person hearing it. Often, this is less a question of “Does that thing mean me harm?” and more one of “What does it mean that I'm hearing this?” The answer might well be madness, or could signify the end of known reality. Alternately: these are stories the focus on the knowledge of horror rather than horror itself.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of moments to unnerve the reader, some of which defy any sort of logic. Why (for example), is the narrator of “They” pursued by a faceless being who repeatedly kills him? In the hands of another author, this might turn into a science-fictional exploration of identity and mortality; here, it’s an exploration of awareness laced with dream logic. The art of storytelling is one of Evenson's primary concerns, with stories like “Angel of Death” and “The Second Boy” nestling disorienting narratives within larger structures that are no less harrowing.
The title story, which opens the book, finds its protagonist recalling a survey made of his childhood home with the help of his older sister. A discrepancy is noted between the house’s external appearance and its interior layout, and an investigation is made. The pacing finds paragraphs and sections ending on unsettling notes, but the mood here is of an essential wrongness; without spoiling anything, I’ll say that the conclusion of “Windeye” doesn’t involve some supernatural entity barreling through a door, but instead touches on questions and images far more chilling.
Halfway through Windeye comes “Hurlock’s Law,” which makes explicit the themes of religious devotion and fanaticism that have hovered below the surface of the book until that point. Evenson, who was excommunicated from the Mormon Church in 2000, often turns to such themes. And what has been sublimated before, in stories such as “Dapplegrim” (a quest fantasy laced with imagery of massacred horses and the narrator surrendering his own agency), “The Absent Eye” (a satire of one couple’s violent experience of post-collapse society), and “Legion” (a sort of thematic sequel to Evenson’s 2009 amputation-noir Last Days), roars to the surface.
The end point to this is the surprisingly dry—but no less unsettling—“Bon Scott: The Choir Years,” in which a journalist uncovers a conspiracy involving the late AC/DC vocalist, the Mormon doctrine of blood atonement, and AC/DC songs reworked with an explicitly Christian theme. Despite some intentionally jarring imagery, of which the title is one example, there’s more paranoia than nervous laughter to be found here.
Windeye is less heady than some of Evenson’s previous books: the collection The Wavering Knife, for instance, digs much deeper into theoretical explorations of horror, while The Open Curtain, which begins as an exploration of fundamentalist Mormonism, becomes a kind of formal experiment, its structure collapsing around it by the end.
And the two stories that close Windeye, “Grottor” and “Anskan House,” veer the closest to outright campfire-tale territory. Even here there is ambiguity, however: an irrationality at the center of “Grottor” that defies explanation, and a sense of malicious spaces in “Anskan House” that mirrors a similar quality in “Windeye.” In one, a house’s qualities dissolve the bonds of family; in the other, they lead to a kind of healing. Though even here, that restoration is not without a dark side, and the book ends on a note of subtle betrayal, suggesting stranger fates to come.
In the taut “South of the Beast,” situated in the middle of the book, a character is described as having “a dark grammar weeping from his side.” For Evenson, that conflation of bodies and text isn’t simply a neat metaphor—it’s an essential condition. And the power of these stories derives much of its energy from that fusion of epistemology and viscera.