FEBRUARY 23, 2016
A COLLAPSE OF HORSES, Brian Evenson’s masterful new short story collection, arrives with three reissues of the writer’s formerly published work: The Open Curtain, Last Days, and Father of Lies. The combined cover images, designed by Sarah Evenson, form a four-volume quadriptych featuring a knife-wielding wolf with a man’s chest and arms. The ambiguous man-beast not only underscores the author’s cerebral body horror, but the bundled books celebrate the odd ways that Evenson’s obsessions spread from narrative to narrative, passing between paranoid characters like brain parasites, and haunting the minds of his readers long after they have finished his books. Anybody familiar with Evenson’s oeuvre expects him to push the limits of human psychology and corporeality: lopping off limbs in cultish ritual, presenting a psychedelic array of rotting corpses, moving semi-allegorical characters through gory Beckettian voids, and even presenting a philosophical skeleton pondering its post-carnal misery.
Though Evenson’s style has become more minimalist since his 1994 debut collection, Altmann’s Tongue, the 17 stories in A Collapse of Horses continue to probe the interplay between flesh and consciousness with metafictional tales that blur boundaries between genres, characters, the real and surreal, and even the narrative confines of the stories themselves. Most of the tales feature the mutable minds of anxious and isolated men struggling to map the margins of flesh and thought, to comprehend their shifting relationships with other characters (or figments of characters), to understand and master brutish impulses that may or may not manifest in the surreal settings they inhabit. As they drive, ride horses, creep, stagger, or crawl through various spaces — sometimes menacing and empty wildernesses, sometimes claustrophobic interiors — their thoughts circle like buzzards as they struggle to understand confusing images, obsessions, and hazy violent memories. Throughout the collection, humor erupts, bubbling up like molten pitch, jerking the reader from horrified concentration into dark laughter.
The title story features a father who may be suffering from Capgras delusion, the idea that the “wife” who visits him in a nameless institution is an imposter, a hostile trickster whom he addresses as “you,” thereby conflating her with the reader. Although the narrator would love to be convinced that his family is alive and well (not killed in a house fire), he narrates his version of the horrors that have led him to his obscure confinement. After suffering an accident that has left him with a “broken skull,” the unemployed narrator becomes convinced that his house changes in subtle ways each night and that the number of children he and his wife have shifts between three and four. His wife meets his theories with skepticism and, later, alarm — especially when he comically attempts to explain to his children that, at times, one of them does not exist. When he goes on a walk to escape his hot, crowded house, he discovers four horses collapsed in a paddock, their keeper in the distance filling a trough with water, seemingly unaware of the beasts that may or may not be dead. In tortuous speculation worthy of a Thomas Bernhard character, the narrator obsesses over the state of the horses, at first avoiding their paddock, and finally seeking it out with feverish intensity, only to discover that he can’t find it.
The four dark animal bodies heaped in the middle of the paddock may or may not evoke apocalyptic lore, appropriate for a man whose life may or may not be in smoking ruins. Perhaps more importantly, the four horses form an idée fixe, a mass of inexplicable animal flesh that Evenson pokes, prods, dismembers, shreds, scatters, and transmutes throughout the rest of the collection.
In “Seaside Town,” a Kafkaesque narrative about a bleak vacation full of sinister absurdities, a man named Hovell becomes increasingly disoriented when his new girlfriend leaves him at a shabby French seaside vacation apartment so that she may visit other cities. As the timid Hovell attempts to understand the setting that confines and baffles him, he discovers a large “dark blotch of some sort” in the courtyard that disappears and reappears, a mass of flesh that turns out to be a horse that may or may not be dead, an object of dread that hints at forthcoming unpleasantness in his own life.
The narrator of the story “Three Indignities” suffers a trinity of grotesquely humorous medical procedures that challenges both his bodily integrity and identity. When doctors lop off his ear to remove a tumor, for example, the refastened organ becomes an alien piece of dead flesh that occasionally “unfurl(s) like a fan” to provide a brief reconnection with the world through hearing. The final carnal “indignity” leaves him wondering if what remains of him is “worth saving.” In this tale and others violent bodily transformations disintegrate the psyche and undermine the safe boundaries between self and other.
In “Past Reno,” as a man called Bernt drives through Nevada wilderness to attend his father’s funeral, he contemplates his relationship with his enigmatic patriarch, who could slaughter pigs without staining his impeccable clothes with even one drop of blood. The first paragraph of the story describes jerky in a rural convenience store, hinting at the weird corporeal mysteries to come:
At the top were smoked meat products he recognized, name brands he’d seen commercials for. In the middle was stuff that seemed local, with single-color printing, but still vacuum-packed and carefully labeled. Along the bottom row, though, were chunks of dried and smoked meat in dirty plastic bags held shut with twist ties, no labels on them at all.
The jerky resurfaces in a flashback as “strips of drying meat” curing in his father’s dim storm cellar, origins obscure, though unnervingly numerous and clearly from a “large animal.” As Bernt peers into the darkness, attempting to spot something that his father urges him to see, he comes away with nothing but a sense of unease and a fierce urge to escape his father.
In the timeless fable “Any Corpse,” the creepy jerky from “Past Reno” transubstantiates into a “shower of raw flesh” fallen in a field (with no hints at the source of the absurd meat showers). Gurgly-voiced “furnishers,” who could be either robots or armored subhumans, gather, cure, and sell the meat. Here the obscure flesh from “Past Reno” reappears as human parts reduced to bits, strewn mostly beyond recognition. When a cave-dwelling woman requests an entire corpse from the furnishers, the story shifts into mysterious gothic mode, recalling Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with reanimating cadavers. After that, the tale explores magical antiquated science, the slipperiness of language, allegorical riddles that suggest a Sisyphean perpetuation of the body’s changes from conscious creature, to corpse, to scattered and recycled meat.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” jokes one of the characters in “The Dust,” a science fiction story about a mining crew on a space mission, a tale that not only contains multiple murders but also explores the metaphysical properties of tiny particles that become symbolically resonant as both an invading foreign substance and the ultimate reduction of physical and mental wholeness. The story begins with the main character Orvar, the mission’s security officer, struggling to clean the “baffles” of the ship’s filtration system. As the system breaks down and alien dust fills the cramped ship, the crew grows paranoid about the purpose of their assignment and the properties of the dust, which they suspect is alive, sentient, a kind of organized consciousness that penetrates bodies through skin and respiratory systems, possibly changing them — a phenomenon that echoes the mind-altering “plasmatic ocean” in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Fearful of a waning oxygen supply and the physical and mental horrors that will inevitably follow, Orvar traverses murky hallways and shafts to investigate various murders. His claustrophobia, paranoia, and agonized thought-patterns become as infectious as those of Poe’s most tormented characters.
While each piece in A Collapse of Horses stands alone as a tale that combines “literary” and “horror” elements in novel ways that blur genre distinctions, the collection intensifies as recurring motifs flow through the various narratives, settings, and fictional psyches: bodily and mental disintegration, the ambiguities of human physicality and consciousness, and the permeable borders between self and other. The final story, “The Blood Drip,” mimics Evenson’s opening tale, “Black Bark,” in oblique and uncanny ways, particularly as the main character is tormented by a sidekick who fades in and out of existence and forces him to listen to an unsettling story. Karsten, troubled by the uncertain presence of his cohort Nils, who may or may not be dead after suffering a severe head injury, makes his way through an unidentified backcountry. When a dripping sound troubles Karsten’s sleep, he wakes to discover a pool of blood before him, another distillation of the baffling flesh that recurs throughout the collection. Karsten spots what he thinks is an animal in a tree, a dark shape reminiscent of the collapsed horses in previous stories. In the very last scene, the mingling of self and other collapses even the writer/reader dichotomy as the storyteller fuses with the listener: “He leaned in again, and this time did touch Karsten’s lips, and drew the breath out of him. When he raised his head again, he was different still. It was if Karsten was looking into a mirror.”
Julia Elliott’s writing has appeared in Tin House, The Georgia Review, Conjunctions, The New York Times, Granta online, Electric Literature, and other publications. Her first novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, arrived in October 2015. She teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she lives with her daughter and husband.