A Master at Work: A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
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While some still argue about the differences between and individual merits of genre and literary fiction, some of the most important names in contemporary literature are working in the space where the two intersect. Thomas Ligotti and Laird Barron are names that quickly come to mind. The third on that list, and perhaps the author who manages to deliver the weirdest, creepiest stories to presently slither their tentacles into the literary realm, is Brian Evenson. In early February, Coffee House Press will be rereleasing three of Evenson’s novels, Father of Lies, Last Days, and The Open Curtain, all to coincide with the release of his latest, a short story collection titled A Collapse of Horses. Despite having won a plethora of awards, the collection is proof that Evenson is still getting better.
A Collapse of Horses is a master class in unnerving storytelling; seventeen short narratives that range from horror to science fiction and from surrealism to noir. The variety is outstanding, the writing is superb, but what makes this collection deserving of attention is how Evenson manages to achieve a perfect balance between what is on the page and what is left out. There is plenty of hyperviolence and grotesquerie, so what’s left to the readers’ imagination is just as awful and suggestive. Where other authors waste time with descriptions of space or characters, Evenson relies on inner monologues, fast-paced action, and unfiltered narrative prowess to ensure each story has a lasting impact.
The first three tales in A Collapse of Horses perfectly exemplify not only the author’s career and multiplicity of themes and approaches but also prepare the reader for what’s to come. In “Black Bark,” which possesses the unmistakable aura of a Western while still reading like a horror story, two men are riding in search of a cabin, but one of them, who happens to be wounded, may not be what he appears to be. By putting a narrative within the narrative, Evenson tells two stories in one and delivers the first of many memorable endings (and one that promises yet another story).
“The Report” is an unsettling and Kafka-esque tale of impending doom and uncertainty that takes place in the microcosm of a dark cell. The narrator was asked to submit a report and he feels something he did, or didn’t do, in said report is what landed him there. Surrounded by unseen guards and listening to a bizarre tapped message and the anguished screams of those being tortured while he waits for his turn, the narrator gives the reader every detail imaginable as he slowly spirals down into a strange sort of quiet, resigned desperation:
“For a while I can make out, traveling its way down the hall away from me, the sound of tapping, though quickly it becomes the ghost of itself and I can make little out. And then it fades entirely. I can still imagine that it is traveling on, can still convince myself, rightly or wrongly, that it exists, but I can no longer hear it.”
“The Punish” follows “The Report” and makes readers just as uncomfortable, or even more so, while moving the action back to everyday setting that are supposed to be much less disturbing than a dark cell. However, as a grown man remembers the game he used to play with one of his friends, the sense of unease starts to grow. Once again, much is said and the narrative makes it clear that the game these two friends played, which they called The Punish, was far from healthy, but the events that are hinted at, both during the story and at the very end, are the kind that set up a tent in readers’ memories and stay for a long, long time.
There are no throwaway stories in A Collapse of Horses, but some of them deserve individual attention here. “Cult” is the closest thing to a love story in this collection, but one that has all the elements of a supernatural noir and which explores the weakness some individuals develop when they fall in love. “The Dust,” which is the longest story in the book, is a very entertaining hybrid that brings together mystery, science fiction, and the elements of psychological thrillers to tell the story of a ground of men who are trapped underground and running out of air. Suspicion and tension keep the story flowing at breakneck speed. Then the bodies and paranoia take over.
Perhaps the two tales that most successfully bridge the gap between horror and literary fiction and thus are textbook instances of what Evenson can accomplish are “The Window” and “Any Corpse.” The first one is one of those rare short stories that can take creepiness and turn it into fear with just a few sentences. Unfortunately, describing it would take away from the pleasure of reading it for the first time. Similarly, “Any Corpse” is post-apocalyptic, uncanny, and scary. In a world where meat falls from the sky and humans live in caves, the rules have changed and are still changing. Learning about those changes turns out to be a very painful process for two characters.
“When she awoke, a shower of raw flesh had fallen in the field. She watched the furnishers sweep their way slowly toward her, moving awkwardly in the armatures, prodding the rended bits where they lay. What seemed fresh and unmaggoted and was large enough to grasp they gathered. They would smoke and preserve it, then try to sell it as provision. What was rotten they kicked dirt over, lifting their faces to the sky as they scraped the dirt along with their feet.”
A Collapse of Horses is cerebral, elegant horror that stretches into a multiplicity of genres. Evenson doesn’t shy away from blood, murder, apparitions, surrealism, dreams, torture, and weirdness, but he also refrains from letting those elements take over. In these brief narratives, what is being told is what matters and everything else works toward making that telling much more compelling.