KR Reviews

On Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson

Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2019. 232 pages. $16.95.

Brian Evenson’s new collection of horror fiction, Song for the Unraveling of the World, delivers on genre expectations. The stories are not fright-night scary, but they are pretty creepy. They have a twist toward the end, and that twist usually works; the end surprises. Sticking close to horror tradition, Evenson has loaded each story with tropes: the crazy—or is he really crazy?—and desperately earnest protagonist/narrator; the background murmur of kids singing; the “I must scream” dilemma (after Harlan Ellison’s truly disturbing short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”); the abandoned/not-so-abandoned house.

Like serial readers of category romance and hard science fiction, horror readers won’t generally put the book down if character development and prose-craft don’t reach high standards. Plot, situation, setting, and mood drive horror. Given such unliterary expectations, the question is repeatedly posed by critics looking at horror, from the works of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and H.P. Lovecraft to the blockbuster novels of Stephen King: Can horror fiction be literary? Horror aficionados and their kinfolk, lovers of weird fiction, don’t care whether what they read is affirmed as “literary,” though some resent the denigration implied by the term “genre.” Those who want to affirm horror’s place in literary fiction tend to conflate genre fiction with popular fiction, falling back on historical precedents, especially the case of Charles Dickens, scorned by highbrows in his time, beloved by the masses—you know the rest. In the case of Brian Evenson’s work, history does not need to speak. Judging by the endorsements, reviews, and prizes he’s garnered, the consensus is that horror can be literary.

Horror that goes beyond the pleasure of formulaic read-snacks—literary horror—takes you to a place you haven’t been, maybe a place you’ve avoided going to: a frightening place deep inside your mind. In an interview in The White Review, Evenson said, “I want my stories to put you into a place where the reality of the world is breaking down or collapsing—both inside the story and for you as a reader.”  This “place” is right where the twist needs to be in literary horror: in yourself, not in a situation that contrives to make you yell eek.

To achieve a reality break in the story itself is not so difficult. You make weird stuff happen. To achieve the break in the reader, the protagonist/narrator must have some credibility; delusion and alienating hypersensitivity must be interchangeable.

Song’s title story goes with the trusty old unreliable protagonist (with a point of view so close-in, it’s hard not to call him the narrator). The “Tell-Tale Heart”-esque plot and premise are compelling: a man abducts his little daughter from her mother, holes up with her in his house, then loses her—in his house. The story’s power, though, is diminished by the corny craziness of the protagonist.

He turned off the stove, poured the water into the cup, spooned some instant coffee into it, stirred. The jangle of the spoon against the cup was like faraway music. If he stirred exactly right, he could imagine he was catching just the hint of his daughter singing softly, at some distance away.

In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe revealed the madness and murder outright. He didn’t seek to upend the reader’s sense of reality, but rather to convey the sense of being trapped in a small space with a ranting madman. Evenson withholds a straight reveal, choosing a riskier way to tell the story. He doesn’t pull it off. Nagging doubt as to the protagonist’s account of events, so central to maintaining suspense in psychological horror, is never fully exploited. We’re stuck trying simply to guess what happened to the kid, rather than left wondering about whose perception—the mother’s or the father’s—reflects the real reality.

The most effective stories in Song are those that lead us to trust the narrator. The protagonist in “Smear” sits in a talking, sealed vehicle wearing a helmet with a smudged faceplate (a swipe at the film 2001: A Space Odyssey). The play on the “waking up in a coffin” trope is exquisitely scary, the story’s build is perfect, and though none of us is likely to end up in a similar situation, any one of us can relate to the mind-trip the protagonist gets wrapped into.

If you love/hate category romance, you’ll love “Shirts and Skins,” which traces in low-key hyperbole the mundane horror of a hen-pecked man. It’s a great premise enacted by a sympathetic schlemiel, though poor pacing dents the story’s effect. One little line, delivered too early in the story, reveals too much: “He was surprised when Megan [the girlfriend] became happy, inordinately so. ‘Right,’ she said, her face lighting up in a broad smile, ‘exactly.’” A broad smile in a horror story . . . Got it. The rest of the story tends to repeat variations of the protagonist’s trials, rather than truly building. The framing device of a perplexing art show called “Shirts and Skins,” though, makes the story resonate past its ending.

“The Tower” takes place in post-apocalyptic urban ruins complete with a mysterious tower. In this familiar territory, Evenson’s dark, strong world-building and a trustworthy narrator suck the reader into the increasingly grotesque and perversely empowering narrative:

We entered Hrafndis’s hole, but it proved empty. There was no sign of the straggler that had been there with her, no waste or other residue. Indeed, the interior of the hole was immaculately clean and a little slick, as if it had been licked over and over.

Brrr!

Song’s careful prose gives his work a dry, somewhat academic tone, possibly the toll of Evenson’s years at teaching university-level creative writing. The flattened, emotionally blunted voice is effective, though. A bland acceptance of all the wrong things, married with Evenson’s mastery of detail, lulls you into the protagonist’s skewed world. Then, before you know it, the back of your neck is prickling.

Jean Huets is author of With Walt Whitman, Himself (Circling Rivers, 2018), acclaimed as "a true Whitmanian feast” by Whitman scholar Ed Folsom. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Millions, National Book Critics Circle blog, and Civil War Monitor. Visit her at www.jeanhuets.com