Friday, July 15, 2016

TC Review & Interview: Brian Evenson quietly leads literary horror into the 21st century with new fiction collection A COLLAPSE OF HORSES

I recently attended a Brian Evenson reading held at Skylight Books in the appropriately understated, enduringly cool east Hollywood enclave of Los Feliz. During the Q & A session after he read his latest collection's titular piece, Evenson shared a personal story that had occurred in a parking garage just days before. As he was walking to his car one afternoon, he noticed a fluttering object up ahead of him, trapped in the corner of the structure, that appeared to be a distressed bird most likely injured and unable to fly. As he drew nearer, he realized that what he was certain was a bird was actually a dead leaf, rocking back and forth in the wind. This gave him pause, and in pondering what he had just seen, or thought he had seen, he surmised that it could be possible that the bird he first saw may have physically transformed itself into the leaf that he found.

This was a quick anecdote, and seemingly innocuous, but as the discussion moved on, this visual vignette and its explanation sent my mind reeling with possibility: When we don't trust our eyes, perhaps we should. When we do trust our eyes, and what information it is relaying to our rational brain, perhaps we shouldn't. Maybe what we think we see but would never dare believe is actually what's absolutely real. Perception can be reality when reality is what we not just perceive, but truly see. Or don't. If a tree falls in the forest and you weren't there to see it, did it not fall?

Some may look upon a rocky outcropping, or a hole in the ground, or a cave, and see it for what it is in a physical sense. Some see these things as something else. Yet others can hear a sound in the woods and interpret it as the swaying of trees in the wind, or the movement of harmless animals. A different set of ears, attached to a different brain, infuse those noises with dread, and potential violence. Terror. Strips of meat hang in a cellar. What sort of meat is it? Why are they there? Is this innocuous, or is this horrific? Can it be both?

If we do not perceive something to be horrifying, it is not horrifying to us. Similarly, if we find something horrifying, ASSIGN it horror, it will be just that. We should question everything. It would be safer to question nothing.

This is heavy philosophical cargo, dealing with the heart and ephemeral soul of physical existence. But more so, these concepts examine the truth or lies of perception, shaded by interpretation, learned bias and ritualized certitude. Perception. Interpretation. Challenging rationalism through a realization of the "supernatural." A loss of control, willingly or not. Dissolution and disintegration.

Brian Evenson deals directly with these sorts of issues in his novels and especially in his short fiction, collected most recently in A Collapse of Horses, published by Coffee House Press as the fourth piece of a "cover puzzle" that also includes re-issues of  Father of Lies (1999), The Open Curtain (2006), and Last Days (2009). In these seventeen tales, Evenson shows us his wide range of literary darkness, probing at all those spots that hurt and unsettle us most.

Since the mid 90's and the release of his brilliant debut collection Altmann's Tongue, Evenson's work has been widely acclaimed, celebrated within genre fiction and without, and keeping him from falling into any easily classifiable genre pigeonhole. Yet he has and continues to write some of the most vital, brutal, and unsettling fiction today. For my money, he writes horror, in the truest sense of the word.

In doing so, in writing these horrors, he rarely falls back on the easy crutch of "going supernatural," but instead sets the table with very real forks, knives, spoons, and plates, although arranging them in such a way that you'd swear some outside force was messing with the scene, re-positioning everything in such a way as to hint of a malevolent presence engaged in disorienting us just long enough to take us down.

This strain of dark fiction - let's call it the Evenson Strain - gives volume and heat to one of the central chambers in the beating heart of contemporary literary horror, sprouting a strongly pumping artery that is leading us into this new century, depositing us - we platelets - on strange, unsafe shores. Great beasts (rarely) scuttle from crypts or rise from the ocean in Evenson's stories. His horrors somehow seem extraordinarily real, and waiting for us all, fate willing. We are monsters and are surrounded by monsters that are sometimes less monsters than we.

Which brings us to A Collapse of Horses, an enviable title that perfectly sets the tone for the stories to come, which include the following standouts:

"Black Bark" ushers us into the collection, introducing us to Sugg and Rawley, two men on the run in the old horse American west. Sugg took a bullet in the leg, and is holding out hope for a cabin waiting just around the next bend in the trail. Instead, they settle for a cave, where a "good luck charm" has good missing from a bloody boot, and a story is told in the flickering light of a campfire. The story of black bark, found in the coat pocket of a man who had no idea how it got there. Then, later, another story is told. "'Doesn't matter much one way or the other,' said Sugg. Then he opened his mouth wide and smiled. It was a terrible thing to watch. Rawley began to be very afraid."

"A Report" reminds me of Kafka (which makes sense, considering Kafka's influence on a young Evenson, something I found out well after making this comparison), only better, soaked with the terror of imprisonment without reason, without end, and - possibly the worst part - without explanation. The tricks the mind plays, and the victims becoming the instigators.

"The Punish" explores the enduring power of childhood trespasses, performed in secret, away from adult eyes and rules, and how these actions can shape the rest of a person's life, for good and for ill. This is a tragic tale of never being allowed to forget the past, and the power of karma.

In "Cult," one cannot help but think of religious compounds, which include those founded on LDS teaching, that litter the western hinterlands of the United States. The weakness and indecision of our protagonist in dealing with an ex had me seconds from screaming at the page. Reads like a price of slightly spooky contemporary fiction, wrapped tight in personal lamentation and religious critique. Excellent.

"A Seaside Town" is - simply and crudely put - one of the best pieces of uncanny and weird fiction I've ever encountered. It reads like Ligotti on a Victorian holiday, and makes the mundane into something unsettling, threatening, dangerous. I have no idea why this story scared me so much, why the activities in the courtyard filled me with such disquiet, but they did. All of them. Stories don't frighten me much, but this one did. A masterstroke of the uncanny that left me scratching my head in grateful awe.

"The Dust" is realistic science fiction Noir, with the situation being very relatable to any locality on any planet. An insidious dust is wreaking havoc on a mining operation, quickly becoming the last of the small crews' problems as they deal with depleting oxygen and the death of one of their own. This is a longer work, a murder mystery novelette buried within a survival tale set on some nameless rock floating in the cold, airless reaches of space, and I couldn't stop turning the pages.

"BearHeart (tm)" is as harrowing tale of parenthood cut short, and the copping mechanisms employed by the grieving couple left spinning in the wake. You can see what's coming, but you don't turn away, because you can't.

"Scour" explores the delicate nature of life, the  and the long, unending concept of death.
The drudgery of the afterlife. If death came for you, would you recognize it? Would you know that you're dead? Once again, dust and grit play a central role

"Past Reno" might be the second-best story in A Collapse of Horses, as it gins up dread in ways that you never thought possible, including through the unlikely vehicle of a diner bathroom mirror. This is Evenson at his very best, mining his past and those dry, western landscapes he knows so well, and the darker spaces just under the surface, where things hang from the ceiling that he doesn't want to know at all.

With "Any Corpse," Evenson veers into dark fantasy and body horror more associated with Neil Gaiman at his most ghastly, or Clive Barker on any given Sunday. This story shows impressive world-building in a strange, grisly afterlife, weaving a level of strangeness that I found comforting, even inspiring. A surprising tale, and by Evenson's own admission, one of the last two stories he added to the collection at the 11th hour before it went to print. I'm very glad it made it in.

"Click," confusion, injury, loss of memory, power of suggestion, at the mercy of larger forces that probably don't have your best interests, or your freedom, at heart - a theme that runs through this collection like a cold needle through flesh. Our protagonists could be having a bad dream or an hallucination, brought on by what appears to be a mass murder and near-suicide. But one can never know, if one cannot trust one's own brain, or the reality that it builds from the information at hand. Officials hover around a hospital bedside, bent on interrogation, obfuscation. They threaten, but don't actually harm or kill you, which might be worse. The waiting. The not knowing. The unreliability of perception, and what horror that surely lays just beneath this thin layer of what our eyes, our brain, tells us is real.

I could go on, but I feel like that would be doing you a disservice, and more importantly, time's a'wasting. It's now your turn to get down into the dust next to A Collapse of Horses, close your eyes, and see where it is that you wake up, and what your brain now tells you. You might be surprised. No, strike that. You will be surprised.

Does this man scare you? This man scares me.

Thank you for joining us at The Cosmicomicon, Brian. I can tell by the number of staff members gathering in the hallway outside the door that we're all excited to have you here. Let's begin...

Creatives are often influenced by and, to some degree, a reflection of what they have seen, heard, read, endured, and consumed. What are some of the primary elements that have shaped you as a writer?

When I was pretty young, maybe 14, my father gave me a book of Kafka’s stories.  It was unlike anything I’d read before and kind of blew my mind.  But I was also reading SF writers like Gene Wolfe and Michael Moorcock, and I was watching a lot of horror and thrillers as well—saw Halloween when I was thirteen and it opened up all sorts of doors for me.  Later, when I was in high school, I stumbled into a lot of theater of the absurd stuff that Grove Press had published—Beckett, Ionesco.  Then later, when I was a Mormon missionary, I managed to talk my companion into going to see David Lynch’s Blue Velvet without either of us having any idea what we were getting into, and again that was so different than anything I’d read.  That movie became a kind of touchstone for me—for many years I had much of it memorized.

It took a while, but eventually I somehow just kind of figured that if I could find all of that satisfying, my readers would too, and that those influences should be allowed to talk to one another on the page.  Early in my career people would tell me that was a bad idea—one of my first reviews suggested I’d be a good writer once the macabre in me had melted down—but I’ve always been stubborn.  Now, it seems to appeal to people.

So, you've seen a change in reader reaction to your fiction from earlier in your career to now?

Probably more a change in critic reaction than in reader reaction.  I think when I was first writing there were a lot of critics who saw the line between genre and literature as very firm, as more of a wall than a line.  They thought you should stay on one side or the other.  I watched some early critics go through acrobatics to avoid mentioning the connections of my work to genre, and other critics criticize it for that connection.  Now, it’s much more widely accepted that what many of that generation thought of as a wall is more like a line drawn in the sand, and that in certain places the wind has made it so you can’t even be sure where the line is at all.

It’s funny:  in the early 20th century it was really common to publish collections that would have a mix of stories in them, some of them literary, some ghost stories, some detective stories, etc.—the idea being, I guess, that you trusted the skill of the author and her ability to entertain you no matter what sort of story she was telling.  But in the second half of the twentieth century there was more of a tendency to divide things out, to publish a book of literary stories or a book of science fiction stories or of a book of horror stories, but not all three.  Now it’s swung back the other way somewhat, partly because of how much good publishing is being done by small and intermediate presses that don’t let their aesthetic taste be guided by their publicity and marketing departments, and partly because the people reading now grew up comfortable with the idea that they could watch an art film on Netflix on Monday, then a horror film on Tuesday, then a drama on Thursday.  We’re much more comfortable crossing those genre lines as readers.

Novels are considered a much easier sell to publishers and to readers, yet you still consistently work in the short form. What is it about the short story that continues to draw you back?

I think stories are such a rich form, that there’s so much you can do with them.  They’re compressed and quick, and as a result every word matters, every word is either helping build something or it’s not doing its job.  With novels, there are slack moments, slack passages, places where you have to let the reader rest a little or they’ll be exhausted.  In a story, you can keep the tension ratcheted tightly throughout.

Thematically, you run the gamut in A Collapse of Horses, from quiet pieces of literary fiction to science fiction to dark fantasy and grisly horror. Did you aim for genre diversity in this collection, or did it just turn out that way? 

It kind of just turned out that way.  Originally I wasn’t aiming for it, but after I had maybe 2/3rds of the stories and was trying to decide what to include I found I had stories that touched on a fairly tight set of ideas and themes but that also felt really different on the surface, were playing with different genre elements.  So I made a choice to embrace that.

Actually, originally the collection had two other quite different pieces in it which would have made it even more diverse but my editor Chris Fischbach and I decided at the last moment to take them out and save them for a later collection.  And then I added in their place “Any Corpse” and “Seaside Town”, both of which were written pretty late.  I added them in just before we printed the galleys.  “The Blood Drip” was a fairly late addition too, but not as late.  It would have been a really different collection without that.

Those last-minute additions are standout stories in your collection. Staying with specifics, with stories like "The Punish," "Cult," "Past Reno," and even to a certain degree "A Collapse of Horses," one gets the impression that many of your stories are intensely personal, reflecting either occurrences in your life or issues for which you hold strong feelings. Is this accurate? If so, do you find writing these stories to be a means of exploration, reader entertainment, or catharsis? 

It’s funny, I think the moments in my story that are personal are probably not the ones that seem personal.  Those personal details are there, but they’re usually hiding quietly in the story, trying to energize it in some way.  So, for “The Punish” the situation is completely constructed, but the architecture of the house is a combination of my best friend’s house growing up (who was very different from that character) and a particular open staircase that was in my grandmother’s house.  And the vertigo he feels going up the staircase, yes, that’s something I experienced when I was young.

“Cult” is loosely based on a story a friend of mine told me about going to pick up his ex-girlfriend at a cult.  There, it was really just a question of imagining a character not unlike myself into the situation and thinking about how wrong it could go.  The journey in “Past Reno” is creepily closely based on a trip we took through Nevada—all the little details of that trip are things I scribbled as notes while driving, just tweaked to be slightly (but only slightly) weirder.  But the father in that story is really different from my own father—though not unlike people I grew up around.

With “A Collapse of Horses” it’s a little different:  that whole story started with a moment when I was walking through Golden Gate Park with Kristen when we were dating and we came across a paddock that had four or five horses in it, all of them lying down.  I’d never seen a horse lying down before, despite growing up in the West, and I wondered if they were sick or, for a fleeting instant, dead. I watched them maybe five seconds before they finally moved.  I went away haunted by that, and began to wonder how a more compromised character might take it in.

It seems like the concepts of perception and interpretation pervade A Collapse of Horses, and your earlier work, where things might not appear to be as they truly are, and vice versa. That there can be more to this reality, if we are foolhardy enough to scratch a bit too deeply. If this supposition is true, are you posing these questions consciously, in an effort to express a worldview, or perhaps an observation on existence? Or is it more metaphysical than that?

I think of it first of all pretty literally:  perception is pretty problematic, and we seem to have always been insulated from reality in some way or other.  I’m interested in thinking about that in two ways, I guess.  First, what happens when what we thought of as real or solid suddenly collapses and leaves us in free fall?  Second, what happens when we break through one reality into a darker one hiding beneath?  So, vertigo on the one hand, terror on the other...

But yes, I think there’s a worldview behind that, that has something to do with the impossibility of ever knowing anything for certain, of ever being in a position in which you can trust reality.  I don’t think you ever can.  That shouldn’t prevent you from living most of the time like you can, but if you’re attentive and have a certain amount of morbid and dangerous curiosity, I think you notice moments when your perception warps or shifts things, where you have to back up and figure out the world in a new way.

How did the recent release of the four "Cover Puzzle" books by Coffee House Press come about?

The covers were designed by my daughter Sarah, who is a visual artist living in Minneapolis, and who has done a few other book covers for other people.  My editor had mentioned wanting to have her do a broadside with the release of the four books and she went in to talk with them about that, and then suddenly she was doing the covers.  I was a little taken aback, though also very happy with what she did.  I like the cover puzzle—though I know it can be frustrating if you already know the books.  Coffee House is doing some more re-releases of mine, and I’m hoping we can continue the puzzle, keep expanding the monster.

You've probably been hounded to death about this, but for any readers who are unfamiliar with your background, how has your upbringing in the Mormon Church affected your worldview, and therefore the stories you write? 

I think it had a big effect.  I grew up in a culture that had a strange relationship to art.  With movies for instance, as a Mormon you weren’t supposed to watch R-rated movies.  But a lot of my friends growing up decided that that it was okay to watch R-rated movies if they were rated R for the violence rather than for sex, that it was okay if they were “only violent.”  I think with my first book especially I was responding to that, to the way in which violence had been normalized in Mormon culture (and indeed in the culture at large).  I was trying to make violence unsettling again.

But there are a lot of other things too.  I think there’s a sort of tone to my work that draws on a formal, slightly archaic way of speaking that Mormons can fall back on in worship situations.  Because I appropriate that language, I think my work is more unsettling to Mormons than it is to people who are not Mormon.  But of course there are other ways of coming at a similar tone—that’s something I respond to in some of your work, for instance, or in some of Matt Bell’s work.

In terms of worldview, I think something about being raised Mormon and having left it has allowed me to examine some pretty dark territory, but I’m not sure why—and obviously if I was watching Blue Velvet when I was a Mormon missionary I’ve long had an odd relation to the culture.  I’ve got a weird combination of ideas I’ve inherited from Mormonism and ways in which I’ve broken from Mormonism. I’m not religious at this point—I’ve formally left the Mormon Church (excommunication) and am happy to be outside of it.  But it’s never easy to completely shake your upbringing, and I don’t know that I’d want to.

If we could explore your missions work a bit more... While you were working as a Mormon missionary - which, although it might be compulsory, would make you more than just a casual follower of the faith - did you find it difficult to reconcile your perhaps non-Mormon view of reality into your religious life? Meaning, was it hard to be someone who thought as a horror writer while still living as a practicing, and evangelizing, Mormon?

It isn’t actually compulsory and yes, I was a pretty active Mormon for a long time, though I always had a complicated relationship to the religion as you might guess from the Blue Velvet story I mentioned above.  I think that my relationship to Mormonism gave the horror I was seeing and watching a certain intensity and resonance that it might not have had otherwise.  It felt much more seriously transgressive to me than it might have in another context, and once I started writing it, it felt like I was playing for keeps.

I was actually sent home from my mission in France and Switzerland for having broken too many mission rules, and then was allowed to go out and continue my mission in Wisconsin.  Eventually, I chose to leave and not complete it.  But then, later, after I was married, I came back to it and served in a Mormon bishopric and so was one of three people overseeing a congregation of several hundred.  And yet, even while I was doing that, I was taking classes for my PhD that challenged notions of truth and meaning, a lot of contemporary philosophy.  I also took a class on the work of the Marquis de Sade.  So I was reading de Sade in French during the week and then running religious meetings on Sunday.  It was a very schizophrenic life, and I think I was pretty good at compartmentalizing it, and at moments there was something exhilarating about how far it stretched me.  I simply didn’t reconcile it and eventually it stretched too far and broke.  Having said that, I’m very content no longer being Mormon and am certain I’ll never go back.

You've recently relocated to California from Providence, Rhode Island. Do you think the change in geography will seep into, or perhaps alter your work written after your move?

I think it will.  I hope it does.  It’s great in any case to be back in the West. I think about writers like Dennis Etchison and what they’ve managed to do with horror and the very particular landscape of the West and I think it can’t help but seep in.  But then again, I’ve never really set a story in Rhode Island, so maybe now that I’m out of New England I can write my New England stories...

You've been writing in horror and dark fiction for a long time, starting professionally with the release of Altmann's Tongue in 1994. Have you seen any recurring themes, movements, or trends in speculative fiction during that time? Is the genre different now than it was then? Weaker? Stronger?

It strikes me as much stronger overall, even though there were giants in the field already established at that time—people like Peter Straub, for instance, or Stephen King or Clive Barker.  What I guess strikes me as stronger is the range and variety, and the way in which Weird Fiction has become a strong and varied genre which people give real credence to.  There’s just so much going on at the moment, and such great writers—Caitlin Kiernan, Laird Baron, Paul Tremblay, Gemma Files, John Langan, Michael Cisco, Simon Strantzas, Richard Gavin, etc., etc.  Even in just that list, there’s such a variety of approaches to horror and dark fiction...  So I feel we’re in a period of possibility and expansion, where people are really exploring the limits and possibilities of what the genre can do.  That’s healthy, and really great for us as readers, and it shows the genre is still healthy and alive.

Tells us a bit about The Warren, your recent novella published by Tor.

The Warren doesn’t come out until September, but a few galleys are floating around.  It’s an SF novel, though different from “The Dust”, the SF novella in the collection.  In terms of my work, it’s closest to Immobility and has a similar kind of meditation on identity and memory.  It’s about a person who may not be who he thinks he is, may not, in fact, even be a person at all.

Should Trump win the upcoming presidential election, will the dark fiction and horror genres suffer, in that everyone will be facing a horrific reality each and every day, and therefore will need stories written about puppies and bunnies to soothe their tattered souls?

Yes.  Even now, as we approach the political conventions, we need stories about puppies and bunnies...

What is left unwritten for you? What is a major goal, in terms of either story or medium, that you'd still like to accomplish?

I have an idea for a long novel and about 75 pages of notes.  I’d like to get around to writing that.  I’m always interested in new projects as well—I find it very hard to resist something I haven’t done before.  For instance, a few years back I got asked if I would write fake subtitles for a Turkish sit-com.  “Of course!” I said.  I feel like I learn something from doing something outside of my comfort zone, that it’s good as a writer to be shaken out of your complacencies.

What's on tap? What should readers expect next from you? 

Besides The Warren, I’m working toward a new and selected stories volume and a collected novellas volume with Coffee House Press, but those will be three or four years down the road...

Thanks so much, Brian. Many thanks for stopping by The Cosmicomion cafe, and we appreciate you leaving our bathroom mirror intact.  

You’re welcome!  (And are you sure you double-checked the mirror?)

Yep, still terrifying
Order A Collapse of Horses here.
Order The Warren here.
Find Brian Evenson online here.

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