[Coffee House Press; 2021]
Although Brian Evenson is not predominantly a science fiction writer (most often he is identified as a writer of horror fiction), much of his fiction seems, even when nominally set in the present, like a projection into the future, a future that has decidedly not gone well for human beings (or whatever species human beings have evolved to become). In this way, Evenson’s fiction (especially the short stories) reads cumulatively like satire on endemic human weaknesses that at last have provoked a supernatural break with a reality no longer able to contain them. The horror in Evenson’s work is thus not an external force suddenly let loose on innocent victims, but a shadow reflection of humanity’s follies.
At times the damage wreaked by human presence is obvious enough: In “Curator,” a story in Evenson’s newest collection, The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell and a piece of straightforward science fiction, the last contingent of people on an environmentally-ravaged Earth depart in their spaceship to search for a new home among the stars, leaving behind an “archivist” whose duty is to preserve remaining strands of DNA so that humans might possibly be reconstituted when the planet is again habitable. She declines this duty, destroying the genetic record so that human beings can bring about no more destruction. “In Dreams” invokes a less distant future of medical experimentation, its protagonist the victim of a procedure gone awry whereby he has been implanted with a “familiar” that has not only robbed him of the ability to dream, but threatens to take over his life completely. In some of the stories we seem to be in a future that has regressed to a primitive stage, as in “The Barrow-Men,” featuring the titular creatures, who seem like holdovers from Europe’s barbarian past (but equipped with translation boxes attached to their necks), or “Elo Havel,” in which a tribe of humans engage in ritual offerings to the forest (which they have simultaneously ruined), which harbors a creature “made of broken branches and loam and hunks of tar, twisted metal, shards of glass,” an “odd amalgam of dead forest and refuse.”
This focus on the horrifying and ghoulish as manifestations of human trespasses gives some unity to a collection of stories that, like Evenson’s two previous collections, Song for the Unravelling of the World (2019) and A Collapse of Horses (2016), can seem decidedly miscellaneous in subject and genre. But the book still seems quite various, including in the quality of the selections. Evenson has been a prolific writer, and has shown a particular affinity for the short story (provoking comparisons with Poe or Lovecraft), but as he has moved farther along in his career, after the initial controversy of his debut, Altmann’s Tongue — condemned by the Mormon church, of which Evenson grew up a member — to the stories and novels published in the wake of that controversy, which made use of Mormonism’s authoritarian rigidities as themselves a source of horror and violence, his explorations of genre have become more wide-ranging and the effects he has pursued more sundry. This might be regarded as a strength of his work, but in my view the work has become more unfocused, its edges more blunted.
The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, in addition to its gaudy title, probably does provide a representative sampling of Evenson’s characteristic story types: Besides the straight science fiction (“To Breathe the Air,” “The Shimmering Wall,” in addition to “Curator”), there are also Lovecraftian stories about elemental entities (“Myling Kommer,” “Palisade,” “Grauer in the Snow,” “A Bad Patch”), stories about killers (who may or may not be aware they are killers, as in “Come Up”) tales of body horror (“Leg,” “The Devil’s Hand,” although a preoccupation with the vulnerability and ductility of human bodies has marked Evenson’s fiction in general from the beginning), stories of the weird and uncanny (“Daylight Come,” “Haver”). In this book, the science fiction stories are rather bland, almost predictable, as are the stories of bodily horror. The stories about monsters and mysterious spirits work rather better, especially “Palisade” and “A Bad Patch,” both of which generate a spooky atmosphere and effectively refuse to resolve our curiosity about the origins of the creatures the author conjures up. The narratives of the uncanny (one featuring a protagonist with the ability to “eat” the dark, the other a mentally ill artist who nevertheless seems able to project himself (or his perceptions) into scenes he does not literally witness — he remains confined to an institution throughout—are also satisfying in their unexplained, anomalous circumstances. This feature of Evenson’s fiction no doubt frustrates fans of traditional horror, but the suggestion that horror is something like an inherent condition of existence has made his fiction seem like more than the reshuffling of generic codes.
The implication that reality is innately unstable is most effectively realized in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell through “His Haunting” and the title story, which concludes the volume. The first is a relatively straightforward ghost story, in which a man named Arn tells his therapist about three moments in his life, widely separated in time, whereby he suddenly became aware of a mysterious presence watching him as he slept. The identity of this spirit is again never fully revealed, although we are made to speculate that it could be Arn’s dead father, or an entity that itself took possession of the father, or perhaps that migrated to Arn himself and released the father, who subsequently simply disappeared. When after the third appearance (during which he believes the spirit moved into his sleeping spouse), Arn disappears — the therapist informs us that he never heard of or from him again — the therapist remains haunted by the case. Was Arn psychologically disturbed or the victim of a perpetually recurring supernatural force, a shadow reality?
“The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell” is a story depicting specifically the instability of human identity, a theme Evenson has often pursued (perhaps most memorably in the early novel, Father of Lies). The protagonist of the story, Hekla (a name she shares with the protagonist of “Leg,” although whether she is that Hekla is one of the ambiguities of identity the story leaves open), attends a self-help workshop held at a rural retreat. (She goes against her will, at the request of her sister.) Almost immediately she finds herself in an alternate reality of sorts — occupied by one of the lodge’s rooms, in which she mistakenly spends her first night after arriving late — and her dreams are invaded by a creature (perhaps the one featured in “Legs”) who eventually takes on Hekla’s own visage. At the end of the story Hekla flees from the wellness guru’s attempt to exploit her apparent sensitivity to “what lies beneath,” but her dreams take her back to the room in the lodge, where she observes “sleeping, unaware, herself.” It is a dream from which she may not emerge.
At its best, Evenson’s fiction reminds us that our purchase on “the real” is fragile (if not delusory) and that our belief that we are in control of the course of our lives is a foolish fantasy. The tacit social commentary more discernible in Evenson’s recent fiction unfortunately obscures these more radical insights that made Evenson’s horror fiction seem genuinely unsettling. Few of the stories in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell qualify as truly unsettling (perhaps by this time in Evenson’s career most of his concerns and signature moves have inevitably become more routine), and their thematic and generic diversity actually attenuates the book’s overall impact — it does not create the same sort of cumulative effect found in Altmann’s Tongue or other of Evenson’s collections. The response to that first book (including by the Mormon elders, who told Evenson to stop writing such disturbing fiction) was arguably prompted as much by the stark restraint of his prose, which magnifies the appalling events depicted. This matter-of-fact quality makes a novel like Last Days, about a “brotherhood of mutilation,” an unpleasant if also compelling reading experience.
In the most recent collections of stories, Evenson’s prose is certainly not more ostentatiously “literary,” but it does seem somewhat looser and more willing to settle for the merely functional. Evenson’s language is mainly expository, moving the story along with a minimum of extraneous description, and leans heavily on dialogue (less so in the first-person stories, of which there are more now than in the early books). But where Altmann’s Tongue used this conventional storytelling mode to achieve a sort of elemental resonance, in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell it just seems ordinary. Perhaps this is apropos enough for stories in which what happens is almost unavoidably foregrounded (character development is mostly beside the point in Evenson’s fiction, and setting is often left purposefully vague), yet when the narrative itself fails to excite (as happens all too often in this book), the writing doesn’t pick up the slack.
The extremity of the situations in Evenson’s fiction, and the audacity of his conceits, have at times led some reviewers to speak of him as an experimental writer, but whatever is adventurous in his work comes almost entirely in its content, not in its style or form. When the plots start to seem less audacious, however, and the situations more familiar, it begins to appear that whatever originality can be attributed to Evenson’s work is limited to a certain flexibility with and across genre tropes, as well as the introduction of a more systematic open-endedness in the realization of those tropes. Evenson’s formal strategies could be called innovative within the usual practices of genre fiction (principally horror, science fiction, and detective fiction), but considered apart from those particular assumptions they are mostly unremarkable.
Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. His book of essays, Beyond the Blurb, has been published by Cow Eye Press and his website can be found at: http://noggs.typepad.com.
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