A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson

A Collapse of Horses BY Brian Evenson. Coffee House Press. Paperback, 240 pages. $16.
The cover of A Collapse of Horses

In “The Blood Drip,” the story that ends A Collapse of Horses, the new collection from Brian Evenson, two men on a postapocalyptic frontier have gathered beside a fire. Well, one of them might not be a man, exactly—a ghost, perhaps, or a hallucination? But still, it’s an archetypal scene: two men, a roaring fire that’s the only light and heat in sight, and the aftermath of violence. One offers to tell a story; the other wavers. The first makes his case: “It’s just a story. A story can’t hurt.”

Evenson’s body of work stands as a long and ominous proof that stories can, in fact, hurt. His narratives frequently explore situations in which a seemingly stable space abruptly turns sinister through a series of subtle metafictional tweaks. Think of a Calvino-esque nestling of locations, in which the delight taken in a well-built world is revealed to be an elaborate trap, or a fraying away of reality. The title story of his 2012 collection Windeye enacts the erasure of one of its characters from existence. It can be read as a haunted-house story, a tale of the fallibility of memory, or an ominous exploration of language—and it satisfies on all levels. In Evenson’s fiction, the intellectual and the visceral are inexorably, often horrifically, connected.

Unsurprisingly, Evenson’s work appeals to students of the well-crafted sentence and aficionados of chilling horror alike. A Collapse of Horses is one of the few collections you’re likely to find that includes stories that have appeared in both Granta and the anthology Best Horror of the Year. The publication of A Collapse of Horses comes at the same time as new editions of three of his novels: Last Days, The Open Curtain, and Father of Lies. The last of those comes with an introduction by Samuel R. Delany, another writer whose whole career has involved the balancing of genre exploration and academic rigor to create challenging fiction.

A Collapse of Horses finds Evenson in a decidedly lean mode. It’s a rare Evenson character whose first and last names both show up in the narrative, and here, readers will encounter the likes of Grimur, Willem, and Karsten (tellingly, Hovell, one of the characters in the moody “Seaside Town,” winces when he hears his first name spoken). The narratives are stark and steadily disquieting: “The Dust” is an exercise in paranoia and claustrophobia that nonetheless reveals few details about either its setting (apparently a space station, or a site that might become one) or its characters (who might or might not be suffering hallucinations due to a lack of oxygen). Throughout the book, Evenson seems to be pushing himself further, seeking the core of his particularly stylized version of horror. He has maintained many of his obsessions and his careful attention to the mechanics of storytelling: his recent Ed Vs. Yummy Fur was a book-length work exploring the comics of Chester Brown, with whom Evenson shares a number of preferred motifs, including religious fundamentalism shifting into violence and surreal examples of body horror. But A Collapse of Horses never devolves into archetypes: Evenson’s description of a character living alone and eating his dinner “directly out of the saucepan” does an abundance of characterization in a single sentence.

“Click” is perhaps the fullest example of the pared-down approach found in this collection. When the story opens, a man is recovering in what appears to be a hospital after a violent incident that he does not remember. Slowly, other figures appear to him: doctors and police officers and someone who claims to be his lawyer. For some writers, this could be a structure used to focus on a victim whose memories have turned unreliable; for others, this could be the beginning of the tale of a killer fundamentally alienated from his own actions. For the protagonist of “Click,” the very narrative of his experiences turns in on itself, with reality—or his perception of it—breaking down (a theme explored at greater length in the final third of his 2006 novel, The Open Curtain). In some ways, “Click” is Evenson’s boldest example of minimalist storytelling in this collection—one that shows how minimalism can become a tool of profound manipulation, causing the reader’s experience to echo the terrifying alienation of the characters.

Stories about storytelling bookend A Collapse of Horses—the aforementioned “The Blood Drip,” and the opener, “Black Bark,” which begins with two men, Rawley and Sugg, riding their horses up a mountain. Sugg wanders off, and something happens to him that leaves him wounded, smelling “of oil and blood.” As night falls, the two men talk; in darkness, Sugg offers to tell “the story of black bark.” It’s a story in which “the part that gets left out” looms as large as the parts that are left in. This echoes the larger story: clearly, given Sugg’s accident, there are parts that Evenson is leaving out as well. But no nods to metafiction or to minimalist withholding can quite capture just how terrifying the story becomes, with its mysterious wounds, a character who may or may not be alive, the encroachment of night, and the central image of the story of black bark, which taps into a nightmarish irrationality.

The more overtly violent or horrific also looms large in several of these stories. “The Punish” is a slow-burning story of a middle-aged man seeking his childhood playmate to revisit the unsettling game that they played in their youth. “Three Indignities” is a more straightforward example of visceral horror and bodily alterations, though it isn’t necessarily Evenson’s most striking work on the subject. (That would probably be the novel Last Days, in which a detective encounters a cult fixated on self-mutilation.) When Evenson cross-pollinates elements of body horror with other approaches, the results are some of the book’s highlights. Consider “Any Corpse,” set in a nightmarish landscape. “When she awoke, a shower of raw flesh had fallen in the field” is its first sentence, which gives a sense of both the visceral aspects and the outright surrealism to come. Its characters encounter entities known as “furnishers,” which can be commanded but which also follow very particular interpretations of those commands; there’s something of a fairy tale to it, albeit with dismemberment.

Weaving the act of storytelling into these terrifying stories is no small accomplishment. Evenson’s precision allows him to give his latest book multiple layers—a way of slowly introducing the reader into the same medium as the characters, and indicting them in the process. Being exposed to the unsettling aspects of these narratives is an unsettling experience in its own right. There are monstrous things to be found in A Collapse of Horses, but the most disturbing of all may be the disorientation that it suddenly spawns, and the lack of certainty that follows.

Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn and the author of the story collection Transitory, which will be published by Civil Coping Mechanisms later this year.