I’ve been reading a lot of Brian Evenson lately. Which is strange, as his writing doesn’t have much in common with authors who have exerted a similar pull on my thoughts (and dreams). His books are split between the literature and horror sections in the bookstore where I work, which feels like an astute decision. There is plenty of bodily harm to be found in his tales, but it’s almost never the focal point of his stories and is never deployed haphazardly; instead, it is used to more fully flesh out (sorry) the philosophical inquiries lying just below the surface of his stories’ myriad plots. Evenson’s tales function largely by tweaking the age-old tension at the heart of horror — where much of the horror genre frantically casts a flashlight around the area between the known and the unknown, these stories are more concerned with the knowable and the unknowable. They wonder why you’re even bothering with that flashlight.
Language plays a key role in this type of investigation — Evenson constantly uses his stories to pose questions about its architecture and utility. Take the story “Mudder Tongue” (found in the collection Fugue State), in which the protagonist finds himself uncontrollably saying words that he doesn’t mean to say. What starts out as one errant word here or there descends into inanity by the end of the story, provoking a growing consternation on the part of our narrator over the course of its disintegration: “First, he thought over and over, I will lose all language, then I will not be able to control my body. Then I will die.” Lacking the ability to communicate with those around him reduces the narrator to a shell of his former self: he breaks off sentences midstream to scribble what he means to say on chalkboards in front of his students, or on notepads for his daughter; this in turn wrecks his self-confidence, as he can never be sure when a fit of nonsense will come on. His daughter is almost as distraught as he is, for the simple reason that he can’t actually tell her what is happening to him, and it’s this core misunderstanding that lends the story its blackly funny sense of inevitability.
It is important to remember that the agents of the protagonist’s downfall are words, and that words are merely references to objects, actions, and feelings — associations that have earned the distinction of verity by virtue of consensus. The narrator is not stringing random syllables together, creating gibberish; his tongue is just replacing the words he means to say with other words that, while found in an English dictionary, have nothing to do with the situation at hand. By divorcing words from their referents in “Mudder Tongue,” Evenson forces a recognition of just how dependent we are on what is at its core an elaborate, mutually agreed upon system of metaphors. Language is the thin piece of ice we’re standing on that we’ve all agreed is not melting — an unsettling realization.
The story I’ve just described may not strike you as “horror,” and Evenson certainly has far grislier offerings in his oeuvre. But Evenson’s writing style is very deliberate and unfailingly articulate (for someone who asks so many questions about language, he certainly wields it adeptly), setting a tone of tenacious inquiry, and this constant questioning results in an abiding and deeply felt sense of unease, regardless of a story’s subject matter or thematic concerns. One of his signature stylistic habits is to have his characters work through increasingly precise logical progressions when confronted with confounding circumstances. In the title story from his collection Windeye, the narrator embarks on one of these logical spirals around the impossibility of one particular feature of his house:
“The problem is the number of windows. There’s one more window on the outside than on the inside.”
. . .
But he had to make sure. He had his sister move from room to room in the house, waving to him from each window. The ground floor was all right, he saw her each time. But in the converted attic, just shy of the corner, there was a window at which she never appeared.
It was small and round, probably only a foot and a half in diameter. The glass was dark and wavery. It was held in place by a strip of metal about as thick as his finger, giving the whole of the circumference a dull, leaden rim.
He went inside and climbed the stairs, looking for the window himself, but it simply wasn’t there. But when he went back outside, there it was.
No matter how many different ways the concept is approached, or how specifically it is described, mapped, or studied, it stymies the one trying to understand it. While similar refrains abound in Evenson’s stories, they all have one thing in common: the protagonists never attain a satisfactory explanation, and the best they can do is surrender in full knowledge of their incommensurate understanding. Indeed, the ubiquity of this tendency on the part of Evenson’s characters convincingly suggests that there are ideas and entities that simply can not be fully grasped by the human mind. It’s this realization — on the part of a character, reader, or both — that lends his tales such lingering potency.
“Wander,” another story from Fugue State, is a perfect example of how Evenson employs this lack of comprehension to terrifying (and more archetypally horrific) effect. A company of men in a ravaged landscape come across a long sought-after shelter, a giant hall with a mysterious pool of water in the back corner that emits an eerie blue light and has an eye that stares back at them from its mysterious depths. Exhausted, they all fall asleep in the hall as night descends, and awaken to find two of their men dead from grievous wounds and several of those who were near them injured as well. They assume the creature in the pool has done this and vow to stay awake to dispatch it the next night — only to end up with more deaths and worse wounds, seeing nothing to confront or flee the entire time. Deserting the hall, they have resigned themselves to commence wandering once more, when a fearsome outsider arrives and vows to slay the creature alone that night. He enters, barely walks out the next morning with many wounds, claims the monster is dying at last and it is safe to return, then suddenly falls dead himself. As the story ends, we’re left with the following words that sum up Evenson’s particular strain of horror succinctly and chillingly:
I am writing by the glow of our enemy as he bides his time and awaits his chance to destroy us. I am writing in hopes of persuading myself to stay and face this death, I am writing in hopes of persuading myself to flee. Perhaps there is a third path for me, but as of this writing I have not discovered it. When the eye shuts and the monster forces itself upon us, I shall either be gone and wandering tribeless and alone, or be beside my brothers and wandering the paths of the dead. May God, if he exists, have mercy upon us all.
H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Evenson does him one better, aware that such fear can never be relieved if the unknown is ultimately unknowable — and his stories demonstrate that perhaps what’s most frightening about the unknowable is that there’s absolutely no way to know just how fearful it is.