The Cost of Stealing from the Parallel Dimension
"The Shimmering Wall" from The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell by Brian Evenson, recommended by Mona Awad
Introduction by Mona Awad
In the horror and short story spheres, there’s no contemporary writer in America whose collections excite me more than those of Brian Evenson. His ability to conjure the uncanny is in itself uncanny—this holds true of his latest collection, The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell.
In story after story, Evenson places before the reader scenes and situations—sensations, really—that have the aura of déjà vu, that seem strangely familiar and highly personal—“reality tunnels” as German philosopher Thomas Metzinger might describe them. Mutated memories of dreams or perhaps past lives. Experiences that you have somehow lived yet can’t fully access in your waking life or more sober hours. Much like the characters in his brilliant story, “The Shimmering Wall,” Evenson reaches through the membrane separating us from our nightmares, where archetypal matter can only be glimpsed in distorted and fractured form out of the corner of our mind’s eye, and pulls strange story items out and onto the page.
How does Evenson achieve this magic? There’s a remarkably no-nonsense precision to his language; he goes in for the sharp, the clear, the visceral. His sentences are a sure hand, leading the reader directly into the story’s world of terrors and wonders. And then? There’s a very interesting, deliberate slippage. A manipulation that makes for the most wonderfully unsettling reading experience and certainly the most brilliant horror: the story says one thing about the world and then immediately destabilizes it, takes a little bit away and infuses it with uncertainty. A world building and then a world unbuilding. Consider the description of the monster in “The Shimmering Wall”: “Near me was a being who resembled a human in every respect except for being carapaced in light. Does that qualify as every respect? Probably not. He was some manifestation of a human, though not human at the same time. Perhaps he had been so once, but it had been a long time since that was all he was.”
Contemporary philosopher Eugene Thacker observes that horror isn’t just a matter of I can’t believe what I see, but crucially, I can’t see what I believe. In other words, horror isn’t merely about presenting the external threat but about troubling our ability to perceive it. Evenson’s stories make for such powerful horror because they capture this double destabilization, taking the reader on an experiential journey through its wondrous, existential dreads. “Things in the world have certain properties, and one comes to understand these properties and what they are, what they mean,” says the unnamed protagonist in “The Shimmering Wall.” “One comes to count on things being what they are. And yet, was I still in the world? I did not know. What did I mean by world? I was barely conscious, to be honest, and unsure I was in any world at all.”
I won’t spoil “The Shimmering Wall” with description, except to say it epitomizes what makes Evenson’s fiction so inventive, entrancing, and profound. It is best discovered line by line, with the sure hand of one our most innovative horror masters leading you across the threshold.
– Mona Awad
Author of All’s Well and Bunny
The Cost of Stealing from the Parallel Dimension
“The Shimmering Wall” by Brian Evenson
Those parts of the domed city were not the city at all—or maybe the parts we lived in were what was not the city. It was not, after all, our city, or at least had not been so originally. It had become, I suppose, our city. Or some parts had. The rest, we stayed clear of. At least most of us did. There were always a few who did not leave well enough alone. We had all seen those parts, seen how they seemed encased in dirty glass or Lucite, semitransparent and flickering walls, rooms and furnishings distorted beyond. When people dared to thrust their hands against the Lucite, they found it was not Lucite at all, but a sort of ﬁrm, jellylike membrane. They could slowly push their way through. They let their arms sink to the elbow or even—the more daring—to the joint of the shoulder, then groped around behind that translucent wall, and when they drew their arm free the ﬁngers at its end were often clenched around something. The distorted broken-off leg of a chair, for instance—if that was in fact what it was—a skew slosh of metal, anyway. Or a pen that was a semicircular loop made for hands other than ours. These oddities could be sold—there were those who collected them.
We treated these collectors with as much suspicion as those who gathered the objects in the ﬁrst place.
There were times, too—rarer these—when someone would thrust a hand through, then an elbow, then an arm, and begin to grope around, only to suddenly be taken hold of by something on the other side of the shimmering wall. From our vantage, we saw only a shape, a vague collection of angles, distantly humanoid in form, take hold and drag the person through. Such individuals never returned.
No one had ever crossed through the wall willingly. They had only felt around, one arm in, the rest of their body out, and drawn objects out. Perhaps these objects were in the form they had been in on the other side, or perhaps in coming through took on some distorted version of their true form.
I was, I suppose, unique. I was an orphan—but there were other orphans among us. My uniqueness was based not on that but on the circumstances of how I became such.
My parents worked together to bring bits and pieces of that other city across. They would take turns pushing through a shimmering wall, watching their arms distort and become a series of angles. They would draw an object out and sell it to collectors. That was how they lived. They always worked together, and as a result always took me along with them.
My earliest memory is this: my parents pressed against a vague and shimmering crystalline wall, one reaching through, the other, legs braced, grasping the ﬁrst around the waist. I had been placed on a ratty blanket as far away from the wall as possible. I pawed the blanket, found crumbs or bugs on the floor, rolled them around in my mouth, spat them out. And then, after what seemed to me a long while, my parents turned, looking simultaneously terriﬁed and triumphant, an unnatural and pain-wracked object held high in my mother’s hand.
Or maybe this is not my ﬁrst memory. I saw that scene or scenes like it so many times in the years to come. Sometimes the object was in my father’s hand, sometimes my mother’s. Sometimes, too, they groped around and then, screaming, quickly withdrew, one dragging the other free as, on the other side of the shimmering wall, a being of awkward angles approached rapidly, tried to catch hold of them, and failed.
Was the being the same as us? I wondered. I had seen my father’s arm through the shimmering wall and was uncertain there was any difference in its distorted angles through the wall as compared to the angles of the arm (if it was an arm) of the being or beings that stalked them there. I wondered this only later, when I was seven or eight. My parents were still on a good run, taking just enough from behind each shimmering wall to provide us with another three weeks, or four, or ﬁve, of food, of life.
When you are older, my mother told me, you must ﬁnd a companion, someone just like you, willing to watch out for you as you reach through the wall, and you for her. You must know how far you can reach and go that far but no farther. You must know how to sink your arm to the shoulder joint and then reach even farther without letting your head push through. And then, God forbid, when a being approaches from the other side, to withdraw quickly with the help of your companion. She will tell you something is coming, and she will help you draw your arm free before it is too late.
This was, indeed, what my mother was to my father, until the moment when she was not. Until something came and she did not alert my father quickly enough, or else my father was sunk too deep, or the being moved too fast. Before we knew it, it had caught hold of my father’s arm, and my mother was dragging on his waist, trying to tug him free. My father was screaming. There I was, nine years old, my arms around my mother’s waist, trying to help my mother pull him free.
And indeed he did come free, but without his arm, which had been neatly severed at the elbow, and just as neatly cauterized.
For weeks after, we avoided those shimmering walls. And yet, as time went on, my parents realized they did not know what else to do to survive. Their whole livelihood had involved reaching through walls—they had no other skills. My mother still had two good arms to reach with, and my father one, and as we grew hungrier they decided I was old enough to assist my mother as a lookout. We had to take the risk. We would, we vowed, take that risk as seldom as possible.
That strung us along for another ﬁve years, until I was fourteen. And then the same collection of angles appeared behind the shimmering wall, and though I immediately shouted out, it was upon my mother too quickly and pulled her through. My father, holding on to her waist with his remaining hand and forearm, followed after. And I, holding my father’s legs, came last of all.
The passage through was strange, as if my body were being stretched and then reassembled to form a new creature. I could feel my father’s legs, my arms wrapped around them, but then, suddenly, they were not legs at all, and then my arms were not arms at all either. And then my mind caught up with whatever transformation I had gone through, and I could think of his legs as legs again, and my arms as arms, and was unsure what, if anything, had changed.
And then, I lost consciousness.
I was lying on a floor flecked with color, as if mica—though the color floated and spun and moved, which mica as I understood it would not. Things in the world have certain properties, and one comes to understand these properties and what they are, what they mean. One comes to count on things being what they are. And yet, was I still in the world? I did not know. What did I mean by world ? I was barely conscious, to be honest, and unsure I was in any world at all.
Near me was a being who resembled a human in every respect except for being carapaced in light. Does that qualify as every respect? Probably not. He was some manifestation of a human, though not human at the same time. Perhaps he had been so once, but it had been a long time since that was all he was.
At his feet lay the bodies of my father and mother. With a tool or instrument possessing a bright edge of light, he had begun to disjoint my father’s corpse. Both feet had been severed and lay idly flopped to either side of the body—bloodless, the mechanism he had used to sever them having apparently cauterized them at the same time.
As I watched, he cut through one of my father’s legs just below the knee. It looked like the left knee, but something told me I was seeing it wrongly, that it was in fact the right.
My mother was apparently unscathed but equally dead.
When he noticed me stirring, he interrupted his task and spoke. “Hello there,” he said, his voice exceptionally deep and pleasing.
At ﬁrst I could say nothing. When he repeated his greeting, I found myself mouthing it back to him. “Hello,” I managed weakly. He inclined his head, returned to his task. I could not move my limbs. I could lift my head and look around but little more than that. “Please, do not be afraid,” he said, then severed my father’s head.
“That’s my father,” I managed.
“Not anymore,” he said, and then made quick work of my mother as well.
In the end, the pair of them were less bodies than neat arrangements of sectioned parts, little more than stacks of ﬁrewood. Though, admittedly, to start a ﬁre with them would have been very difficult indeed.
“How is it you speak my language?” I asked. He was moving between the pile that had been my father and the pile that had been my mother. He kept removing a portion of one or the other pile and putting it back in a different way, then standing back to judge the results.
“No,” he answered distractedly. “You are speaking our language.” His voice was beautiful, almost unbearably so, and somehow familiar too. It warbled and came to me in multiple tones, as if there were three layers of him for every layer of me.
I blacked out again. I don’t know why. When I came to again, I had crawled to the translucent shimmering wall and was trying, ineffectually, to shove my head through. How long I had been at this task, I had no idea.
The other being was beside me, bending down slightly, a concerned look just visible behind the blaze of light that enveloped his face.
“We are not going to hurt you,” he said. “Did you think we were going to hurt you? We don’t hurt children. We never do.”
“Who’s we?” I managed, through clenched teeth.
“We?” he asked. He gestured to his own chest. “We’re just like you,” he said. “You speak the same language as we do. You think the same thoughts as we do. But we’re not you.”
“Then what are you?”
But for this the being seemed to have no answer.
“Just sit back,” he said. “Relax. It will only take a moment to dispose of your parents.”
I watched it happen, though what exactly it was that was happening was difficult to say. The being moved back and forth between the piles, continuing to adjust them slightly until the one on the left, the pile that had been my mother, began to glow.
A moment later, he lifted my father’s head by the hair and then set it down again. And then the pile that had been my father began to glow too.
“We are sorry about your parents,” he said in that same beautiful voice. “But there was really no alternative.”
Slowly the piles that had been my parents began to quiver. The parts rose into the air, reshaping themselves into human form, with gaps between the pieces. They were teetering, stretched-out beings, assembled of dead flesh ligatured together with light. They moved jerkily, as if compelled by some other force. I watched their eyes darting about behind the carapace of light that had now swallowed their heads. Confused, they seemed to be casting about for something. And then, abruptly, their gaze came to rest on me.
“How interesting,” said the being. “They believe they recognize you.”
Within their carapaces, my parents seemed to be screaming, but I could not hear a sound. Awkwardly, they lurched toward me.
“It would be better for you to go now,” the being said.
And when I still did not respond, unable to move as what had once been my parents wobbled toward me, he reached out and took me by the neck and thrust me bodily through the shimmering wall.
I grew up. Years passed. I chose to forget my parents. I built another entire life around myself, became a respectable member of society. I acquired a wife—or perhaps she acquired me, if acquired is the right word. I lived wholly in the city that was ours, never groping into that other city, turning away from the shimmering walls whenever I encountered them.
Things might have gone on like that until I died, but, simply, they did not. My wife, as had many around us, became subject to a wasting disease, her teeth and hair falling out, her body erupting in pustules and sores. She began to bleed from every oriﬁce, slowly at ﬁrst, then quicker and quicker. I remained unaffected.
“Kill me,” she begged. “Please, kill me.”
I took her to the treatment center, but we were turned away. No, they said, they would not treat her.
What, I asked the admitting nurse, would it take for her to get admitted?
There was nothing to be done, the nurse claimed. She shook her head. It was not an illness they could treat. They no longer had the proper medication.
But surely, I said, it was just a question of gathering the materials and then the medication could be made again. Again she shook her head. “We never had the formula, only the medication itself.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. And when she gestured back at an empty vial, distorted and twisted, I knew the medicine had not come from our city, but from the other one.
I kissed my wife, set off. There were doors in my mind that I had kept shut for so long. Now I opened them. Behind them, I found my parents and all they had taught me. Behind them, I saw again the strange portions of the city. I had seen such a vial before—or had seen a vial somewhat like it, anyway. Where had it been?
I walked idly, allowing my mind to wander. I tried to think like that young boy, dragged along by his parents as they pushed a hand through a shimmering wall. What kind of parents brought their child along for something like that? I tried to recall each wall my parents had approached and stretched their arms into, sometimes my father, sometimes my mother, and what, from my vantage, I had seen through them. I wracked my brain, saw again their sweating faces, their anxiety, then that moment of triumph as they brought an odd and skewed object back through the wall.
And then I realized: I would only have seen the vial so clearly if they had brought it back through the wall. No, they must have brought it out and sold it.
But no, I considered further after clambering out of my despair: I had no memory of the object being in my parents’ hands. And yet I did have a memory of the object, a clear image. Not in my parents’ hands but lying on the floor. Had I seen it myself through a wall? If so, where?
But no, in my memory the object was too close for that, not glimpsed through a wall. No, it was just there before me, at my feet. Or rather, just at the level of my eyes, maybe half a foot away. And then I allowed the memory to continue, and my eyes flicked up to a strange being swathed in light and holding a bright-edged instrument, and I knew what I had to do.
I spent some time trying to ﬁnd the right wall. I looked at many, dozens, but none seemed right. I tried to be systematic. I would come close and peer through and try to recognize what lay beyond, but each time I could not say for certain that I recognized anything. And then I began to think: Where had that being come from?
The one who had dragged me and my parents through the shimmering wall? He had not been inside the room when my mother ﬁrst reached in, I was sure of it, and then, abruptly, he was. Perhaps each encased room behind a shimmering wall led to other rooms and these to others still, and these all were connected. That every encased room led to every other encased room, in which case it did not matter which shimmering wall I passed through, as long as I passed through one. Once I was through, I could rapidly look for the object I remembered by moving from room to room instead of groping through the shimmering wall.
At least, that was what I chose to believe.
I had not touched a shimmering wall in several decades, and yet the sensation immediately came back to me. At ﬁrst the wall resisted, felt almost solid, but then, slowly, it began to yield. With a sucking sound, it drew my ﬁngers in, and then my hand, and then my forearm. The sensation was odd and disorienting, as if my hand were being taken apart and put together in a way that made it something else.
And then my ﬁngers broke through to the other side.
I plunged my other hand in. When it was sufficiently deep, I lowered my head and pushed it through as well. The sensation grew worse, much more intense, and for a long moment I didn’t know what or who I was. The stuff pressed against my face in such a way that I began to lose track of where my body ended and the jelly began. Soon, too, I could not tell if I was moving through it at all, and I lost all initiative to do anything but float, suspended, my legs still legs on one side, my hands something like hands on the other, but everything in between an undifferentiated mass.
How long was I there? Minutes perhaps, or hours, or days. I did not breathe, but I do not know that I needed to breathe. It was as if I were caught between two states and subject to neither one nor the other.
And then something took me by the hands and pulled.
I coughed and a spill of jelly slid from my throat. It lay for a moment in a quivering pool beside my face before, very slowly, vibrating its way back to the shimmering wall. I looked up, my vision bleary, and there, above me, was a being of angles refracting off one another, its body encased in light. He held an instrument whose bright edge was moving downward, toward me.
I lifted an arm to protect myself and suddenly the instrument withdrew.
“Ahhh,” said a voice that was exceptionally, almost unbearably beautiful. “You’re alive.”
I coughed up another lump of jelly. “Why wouldn’t I be?” I said.
“They never are, the adults,” he said. “Until we make them so.” I managed to get to my knees.
“We’ve met before,” the being said, his brow furrowing behind his carapace of light.
“Yes,” I said. “You killed my parents.”
“Not killed,” he said. “In fact, we returned them to life.”
I was on my feet now, stumbling. “Are you the only one here?”
“Well,” he said. “There’s your parents.”
“But they’re not like you.”
“No, they’re not. They’re not sufficiently there. Except for us, nobody is sufficiently there.”
“There? What do you mean?” He shrugged.
“Because of you,” I accused.
“In spite of us. That they can function at all is a minor miracle.” I glanced around for the vial, any vial. An old swirl of metal, a crumpled wooden box, forks that had twisted on themselves and had their tines bent in every direction. No vial.
I looked for a door. There it was in the back of the room. “Where does that door lead?” I asked.
“How can you still be alive?” he asked. “Is it because you passed through as a child? We never hurt children.”
Perhaps he intended to say more, but by this time I was sufficiently in control of my faculties to strike him hard in the temple and knock him off his feet. The light around his head made my ﬁngers tingle but otherwise did not adversely affect me. A moment later my hand closed around his instrument. I activated the bright edge of light and pushed it deep into his side. I could smell flesh burning.
He grunted. “It won’t do you any good,” he said, and expired.
Once he was dead, the light around him flickered and went out. He looked now like an ordinary man. Remarkably enough, he seemed to resemble me. So much so that I thought at ﬁrst he was my father. But no, not quite. And then I thought, If not my father, who? Dreading what the answer might be, I quickly turned away.
I left the body there. I had thought I might feel some measure of satisfaction in killing the being who had killed and then reanimated my parents, but I felt nothing at all. His face haunted me.
I went through the door, and from there into another room, and from there into another. I kept moving from room to room, each ordinary in every respect except for the one shimmering wall that opened onto another place, another city, my city. Sometimes I would see shadows on the other side of the wall. Once I even saw a hand protruding through it and feeling around frantically on the floor, though it quickly pulled back as soon as I approached.
After a few dozen rooms, I found them—the creatures that had once been my parents. They were still encased in light and still seemed to be mutely screaming.
At ﬁrst they seemed not to notice me, and when I approached they did not acknowledge my presence. But then, abruptly, they did, coming at me and throwing their strange disjointed bodies onto me until I began to feel suffocated and, for my own protection, had to activate the instrument again. Their light went out and they collapsed into dust and were gone. I continued on.
How many more rooms? A hundred? Two hundred? More? There have been so many rooms since that I cannot say for certain, but there, at last, it was, the twisted vial, just as I had remembered it, tipped on its side in the middle of the floor. I snatched it up. Was it identical to the vial the nurse had shown me? No, not identical, but very close. I had no way of knowing if I had found what my wife needed to survive, but yes, perhaps it was so. It was not, in any case, impossible.
And so, vial in hand, I approached the nearest shimmering wall and pushed my hands through, eager to return to save my wife.
Or at least I would have. But the translucent wall was solid. It would not let me through.
I tried wall after all, but they all resisted me. I was trapped. Only then did I notice the glow that had begun to envelop me.
I have lived through one of these cities. Now, I must live through the other. Meanwhile, my wife lies in her bed, suffering, dying. Perhaps she is already dead.
I am nearly done with this record. Once I have completed it, I will lean this notebook against a shimmering wall and wait for a hand to grasp it and pull it through. If you ﬁnd this and read it, I ask only one thing of you: come back to this wall and push your hand through again. I will place in it this vial, which you must use to cure my wife. Once she is cured, bring her back here with you and convince her to push her hand through. I will do nothing to her, will not drag her through, for I know that it would likely kill her. No, I will only hold her hand for a moment, squeeze it, and let go.
And then it will be your turn. I have treasures beyond your wildest imaginings. If you will do this small thing for me, I will bring them to the wall. You will be wealthy, and powerful too. All you have to do is follow my commands, and trust me.
But if you do not do this, you will have nothing of me. You will have only the bright edge of my instrument, and I will have you in pieces.