Whose horror fiction would you least like to be a character in? For my money, it would have to be Brian Evenson. As with the work of many of his peers, there’s the not insubstantial chance that I might be murdered, devoured, or otherwise harmed by a zealot, creature, cult member, or creeping eldritch horror. But in Evenson’s work, there’s also the possibility of being unmade on a more primal level, of being erased from the world entirely. (The title story of Windeye, his previous collection, taps into this in a magnificent and horrific way.) Even when he’s venturing into more nominally science fictional territory, as in Immobility and The Warren, Evenson continues to explore questions of identity and the malleability of both it and the body, combining futuristic plot elements with deeply disquieting meditations on the nature of the self and the human capacity for deception.
Evenson is an acclaimed author and translator; he’s also collaborated with the creator of The Purge on a horror novel, Contagion. This, in many ways, exemplifies his appeal: Evenson understands both the precision of language and the gut-level appeal of the grindhouse, and the best of his work skates along the border between the two, combining aspects of both.
Song for the Unraveling of the World is Evenson’s latest collection, and it’s a perfect introduction to Evenson’s work for those who are looking to experience it for the first time. For longtime Evenson readers, there are also plenty of delights here, ranging in tone from the philosophical to the visceral. In “Leaking Out,” for instance, a drifter takes refuge in a huge and seemingly abandoned house. On his first night sleeping there, though, he is awakened by another presence there, something that seems somehow wrong.
“There in the other armchair was a man. Something was wrong with his skin: it hung strangely on him, too loose in the fingers and elbows, too tight in other places. There was something wrong too with his face, as if the skin didn’t quite align with the bones beneath.”
What follows is a surreal riff on the idea of strangers telling stories in a mysterious place, given new energy and danger by the potentially inhuman nature of one of the participants. There’s an underlying logic to the behavior of the man with the oddly-fitting skin, one which pays off at the story’s conclusion. And that sense of beings with their own internal logic, which may be disquieting to humans, continues throughout the book—most notably in the unsettling sibling relationship of “Kindred Spirit,” the shifting narration of “The Hole,” and the bizarre familial bonds seen in “Sisters,” about a very unique family celebrating Halloween in their own way.
Other motifs also repeat throughout the collection. Three of the book’s strongest stories, “Room Tone,” “Line of Sight,” and “Lather of Flies” all center around filmmaking. “Line of Sight” is particularly notable for its structure, which suggests a sense of wrongness long before it lets the reader know exactly what went wrong on a particular film shoot—and what the consequences of that might be. And “Lather of Flies,” about the search for a lost film made by a cult filmmaker, ties in with the sense of obsession that emerges from many of these stories.
Evenson can do straightforward cosmic horror when he wants, and “Lord of the Vats,” which heads into Lovecraftian territory (albeit in a futuristic setting, which allows Evenson to explore some questions surrounding the nature of personal identity) is a prime example of this. But some of the most memorable works in this collection are those that opt for subtlety. “Wanderlust,” whose central character finds himself compelled to traverse the country in an increasingly surreal fashion, takes Evenson’s penchant for narratives of alienation into an unclassifiable place—not horror per se, but also genuinely unsettling in its implications.
This isn’t the only indication of Evenson trying out some new directions with this book. There’s also the short “Trigger Warnings,” which may be the most satirical thing Evenson has written. In this context, it’s a bit disorienting for other reasons: a bit of comic relief in the midst of existential horror. I’m not sure it clicks as well as some of the other works in the collection; on the other hand, it’s nice to see writers pushing themselves in unexpected directions.
All told, Song for the Unraveling of the World is a succinct exploration of Brian Evenson’s strengths as a writer: some of the concepts and images here aren’t likely to leave my head any time soon, and the evenness of his tone and precision of his language only accentuates these stories’ moods. There’s also a sense of Evenson pushing out and trying new things, keeping things interesting for those who have been reading Evenson for a while now. Evenson knows how to meticulously construct a story, but he also knows the primal terror that can come from a darkened space or something just out of view. In these stories, he demonstrates just how effective those traits can be combined.
Song for the Unraveling of the World is available from Coffee House Press.