- The Terror of Living
Coffee House Press
270 Pages; Print, $16.95
Horror takes many forms. In Brian Evenson’s newest short story collection, A Collapse of Horses, it is at turns a glowing apparition, a suffocating dust, a juvenile game, and an unnerving smile. It emerges in the isolation of a cell, on the operating room table, at a seaside hotel, and in the nursery of a stillborn child. It grows amidst bureaucracy and violence, loss and illness, denial and ignorance. In fact, horror takes so many forms in Evenson’s stories that the collection paradoxically defies the horror genre, at least in the narrowest sense of that term. Certainly, the collection is not without its ghosts, its psychoses, its carnage. Yet it also delves into science fiction, western, mystery, domestic drama, philosophy, religion, and metafiction. Not to mention humor. Despite this eclecticism, the stories cohere, building a vague but contagious sense of dread. The true horror of the collection ultimately stands outside of any one story, any one character—and in doing so implicates the reader, above all.
None of this, of course, will be new to fans of Evenson’s work, which has pushed generic boundaries and forged its own brand of literary horror for decades. Indeed, the collection finds Evenson in his element, framing broad questions about truth, authority, phenomenology, and aesthetic form within otherwise local conflicts. It is fitting, then, that Coffee House Press’s publication of A Collapse of Horses coincides with the rerelease of three of his earlier novels—Father of Lies (1998), The Open Curtain (2006), and Last Days (2009). At once prospective and retrospective, A Collapse of Horses serves equally well as an introduction to his work and a reinvigoration of it.
Evenson not only echoes themes from his earlier work, but also references a number of other fictions, including William Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers (1834) and the 1981 film Outland. Moreover, he foregrounds moments of repetition, revisitation, and reiteration throughout the collection, triggering a sense of déjà vu for new and old readers alike. Some of these moments are contained within a particular narrative, often experienced via the protagonist himself. “Past Reno,” for instance, follows a young man on a road-trip back to Utah to settle the estate of his estranged father, a fastidious and brutal rancher whose inheritance may be more of a curse. In “The Punish,” two childhood friends reunite as adults to resume a dangerous—and perhaps deadly—game. And in “The Dust,” the head of security in a hazardous extraterrestrial mine cannot seem to escape his past, despite the fact that the past continually escapes him.
One of the open questions in stories like these is what it means to remake, repeat, retrieve, or re-anything. Is it impossible to do things over again? Or, on the contrary, is it inevitable? At first, this question often appears psychological in nature, occasioned, for example, by characters struggling with trauma, obsession, or paranoia. As the stories progress, however, it becomes clear that Evenson is not primarily interested in psychology per se. Unlike some psychological horror stories, which plumb the depths of memory and perception to reveal shocking truths, his stories simply dig and dig deeper, paradoxically flattening the characters out. Although alerted to the potential unreliability of the protagonists, the reader is rarely granted a clearer a vantage point.
For some readers—especially those who expect to get to the bottom of things—this approach may come across as coy or unsatisfying. Despite the psychological premises, Evenson’s characters remain opaque and almost interchangeable; and despite some dramatic turns of event, his plots feel at once abrupt and overdetermined. In the end, the reader may not be able to decide whether a particular transgression is due to madness, malice, or supernatural intervention. “Seaside Town,” for example, concludes with its protagonist, “a man of regular habits,” behaving quite out of character. Vacationing in Europe, he becomes preoccupied with the elusive comings and goings of another couple in his apartment complex and, ultimately, reenacts a similar drama with his own companion...