A Collapse of Horses
(Coffee House Press, 2016)
Brian Evenson—nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, finalist for the Edgar Award and the World Fantasy Award, winner of the International Horror Guild Award, the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel, and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and three O. Henry Awards—is considered a master of American horror. With five novels and six collections of short stories, Evenson has built a repertoire of finely crafted, often subtle, and absolutely terrifying fiction. This is not horror of the predictable slasher variety but rather, if comparisons are needed, it is horror of the slowly creeping and psychologically terrifying style in the American tradition of Edgar Allan Poe or Henry James. Often compared to Stephen King, Evenson displays similar tendencies with prose that is more rigorously literary. Every sentence, every word, feels carefully crafted—not surprising given that Evenson is both an academic (formerly heading Brown University’s Literary Arts program and now at Cal Arts) and a respected translator. His use of language is virtuosic, drawing the reader in with the beauty of his prose until the slow build of fear finally pays out. To paraphrase a character in his short story “The Window,” this fear is of another order entirely.
In his latest shorty story collection, A Collapse of Horses, Evenson presents seventeen stories that blur time and space, genre and narrative style. Along with the precision of his language, there is a refusal to provide anything resembling resolution in his stories. These are not easy reads with a traditional beginning, middle, or end. Often we are dropped into an alien environment with unrecognizable characters, making it difficult for the reader to find a footing. Often there is brutality, often there is violence, and just as often there is a feeling akin to physical discomfort. Some readers of Evenson’s work claim to read through his collections from cover to cover in one sitting. This is not advisable. The cumulative effect of reading even two of these stories back to back is extremely unsettling. Many of his narrators (if not all) are unreliable and usually we do not know if the events described are products of an unhinged mind or a terrible reality. These are stories that haunt in the truest sense of the word—hours, even days later these characters and their terrible or possible fates come back again and again like a powerful film or terrifying nightmare. Each story stands alone as a perfect masterpiece of horror, but themes do repeat: physical and mental collapse, the permeability of boundaries, even the very nature of space, time and reality itself.
In the two book-end stories, “Black Bark” and “The Blood Drip,” a Western-themed campfire-horror tale is told: two men lost in the wilderness, one wounded and horrifically bloody, telling a confusing tale. There is a slowly building dread throughout both stories but, in true Evensonesque fashion, there is no traditional or formulaic resolution at the end. “A Report” is modern near-Orwellian horror with a man unsure of his crime but imprisoned and tortured by absence, by sound, and by the possible threat of coming torture. We do not know if he is already insane or being driven insane by the circumstances of his imprisonment. “The Punish” is a tale of childhood retribution focused on a man who has never forgotten the “game” he and a neighbor played involving extreme physical punishment.
In the title story of the collection, the narrator witnesses a sight that becomes an obsession throughout his narrative—a field with a “collapse” of horses and a man, unaware of their collapse, his back turned and filling the horses’ water trough. The narrator is unable to tell if the horses are alive or dead, and later when he tries to gain some certainty, he can no longer find the horses or even the field. The narrator addresses a “you” who “claims” to be his wife, although he is sure his entire family burned in a fire, which he believes he caused—a fire that may or may not have actually happened. He tells the “you” in the story, “I would like to be convinced” but, like the reader at the end of this story, “I still do not understand.” The story “Cult” is a tale of love gone horribly wrong in which the long-suffering protagonist comes to believe he can only escape his obsessive and violent ex-girlfriend by joining the cult she has just been asked to leave. “Seaside Town” is a haunting, slow-moving tale of love and possibly murder (very little is ever for certain in these stories) reminiscent of the 19th-century fiction writer Sheridan Le Fanu. There are few moments in fiction when a character assuring us that there is “nothing to be afraid of” has ever conveyed such horror.
Evenson has referenced the 1981 Sci-Fi classic Outland as an influence on one of the longer stories in the collection, “Dust.” Again the narrator is unreliable, and while we might want to believe him, it becomes clear as the story movies inexorably forward and the bodies begin to pile up, that he may very well be the killer he tells us he is trying to discover. “Bearheart” is another love story gone horribly wrong. Lisa and Michael are a normal young couple expecting their first child. Michael, as a “joke,” purchases a stuffed bear with the baby’s prenatal heartbeat inserted in as an audio loop. When Lisa miscarries late in her pregnancy, the bear begins to haunt the couple, although we are never sure if the haunting is actual or if Michael is simply going mad. In “Scour” and “Any Corpse” reality is somewhere not here—a place where the outside world is either sand that scours flesh from bones, or body parts that fall from the sky and are harvested by non-humans called “furnishers.” Evidence of Evenson’s ability to convey humor amidst horror, “Any Corpse” reminds us that sometimes we get exactly what we ask for.
“Past Reno” is a tale of the return of the prodigal son, but by the end of this story, we absolutely do not want the son to return home, we don’t want to know what is inside “the box” that is his inheritance, nor do we want to know just what it is his father showed him in the storm cellar. “The Moans” and “Window” are both ghost stories of different varieties—one told by a German “observer” of the “counter-culture” in a house he later returns to only to find a burned-out shell inhabited only by ghosts; the second focused on a man confronting an invisible intruder who may or may not actually have been there but who, he is convinced, will “come for him” soon. “Click” features a man who has suffered a head trauma and is desperately trying to make sense of his surroundings. He has been asked to write a report and the story ends with a request that we make sense of this report—an intimate gesture, Evenson’s deft use of “you” implicates and exhorts the reader at the same time. It is our job to make sense of the narrative, which seems an impossible task; it is our job, despite shifting boundaries and impossible-to-define realities, to make sense of all these narratives. It is the cumulative terror brought on by our inability to do so that is at the heart of Evenson’s genius.
A Collapse of Horses is a stunning collection of disparate tales of existential terror, which could serve as a good introduction to readers who are not familiar with his work. However, allow your reviewer to warn you: once you have read Evenson, you will want to read all of Evenson; yet beware, like most addictions, it is a dangerous pursuit and one not easy to pass through unscathed.