Stephen Crane’s 1898 novella The Monster depicts a fictional town whose residents shun Henry Johnson, a man who is disfigured when he attempts to save a child from a burning house. The townspeople think that Henry, badly burned, will surely die, but he lives to become the titular “monster,” deformed and feared. Henry’s injuries are described with a deadpan dread that perfectly channels Crane’s knack for bleak simplicity: “His body was frightfully seared, but more than that, he now had no face. His face had simply been burned away.”
Brian Evenson’s latest story collection, Song for the Unraveling of the World, begins Crane-like. The first lines of the lead story state that, “No matter which way we turned the girl, she didn’t have a face. There was hair in front and hair in the back—only saying which was the front and which was the back was impossible.” This opening reads like a joke too unsettling to laugh at. Or perhaps a horror so unsettling as to necessitate laughter. The two-page story goes on to describe a girl whose head has been half-swapped with the head of another. So “no matter how you looked at her, you saw her from the back.” And as the final lines clarify, this means there is also a girl who, “no matter where you turned, always faced you. A girl who bared her teeth and stared, stared.” Two stares because two faces. No matter which way you turn, she is always watching.
Is this a punch-line? Perhaps. But more simply it is an extrapolation—a fulfillment of the premise. A no-faced girl whose head has been partially switched with the head of another (by aliens, it seems) means that there must be a girl out there with two faces. Horror takes root in extension, in following an idea to its unraveling conclusion. Such is the pattern set throughout these twenty-two stories that range from two to fourteen pages in length, unrelated in plot even as—following Julia Elliot’s insights regarding Evenson’s previous fiction—specific themes and details recur to haunt the usually doomed characters. Evenson’s refrains in this volume take the form of skin constantly shed, obsessions with tiny indistinct forms, and surfaces polished clean, “as if licked.” These bizarre motifs take on tone and substance as you read, circling back to earlier stories while shaping what’s to come. They become uncomfortably ours, familiar and burrowing. As the collection’s epigraph suggests—and as the echo of Crane also insists—dread flows to fill the void that balloons from even the simplest nagging thought.
But where Crane’s unease turns on the social worlds built from extrapolation—the reaction, for instance, of a town that turns monstrous in shunning the disfigured Henry Johnson—Evenson is ruthlessly isolating. Simply calling these stories “horror” wouldn’t be right not only because they shift from genre to genre but because that label is too grandly boisterous for what is, in many cases, an extremely intimate sort of unraveling. Indeed, the title of this collection might make it seem that Evenson has turned his inimitable talent to the fate of the “world” at large—focusing, perhaps, on the ruin of public discourse, global order, or ecosystems. But instead the “world” repeatedly undone belongs to one character or maybe two, minor key visitations of reality fraying in ways undetectable to someone standing even at arm’s length. These precise calibrations are paradoxically extending in their own right, as the act of turning away and turning inward evokes everything lurking just out of sight. In an interview, Evenson links this effect to the genre of so-called “weird” fiction, noting that “a suggestive horror, which raises the spectre of an insidiously elusive reality, is much more frightening than a lot of what gets called horror, and more realistic than what gets called realism.”
Extension is a form of stretching, and perhaps for this reason a number of Evenson’s stories detail a literal sort of stretching, as skin is several times peeled away from an unsuspecting narrator. The best of these epidermal abnormalities finds a pair of sisters stretch Halloween to a deadly if comical extreme, although several other skin stories (a sub-genre?) are significantly less playful and more gross, for lack of a better word. In this latter sort, the stretching is also psychological—an abrupt expansion of cognition that all but ruptures as characters encounter the unaccountable. The hallucinatory “Shirts and Skins” is the bizarre standard bearer in this regard. In all iterations, the reader, too, is stretched, usually with a concluding joke that twists against the grain of the expected. The doubly staring girl of the opening story is only the first of these wry turns; one story, “Trigger Warning” is comprised entirely of similarly barbed rejoinders.
That many of these stories were previously published makes the actual form of this collection remarkable for its unified sense of unnerving anxiety. While roughly half of the stories begin in a recognizably mundane world, the most daring open on concisely realized science fiction settings: a post-apocalyptic Jeff VanderMeer-like landscape (“The Tower”), spaceships (“Lord of the Vats,” “The Smear”), a Le Guinian sentient planet (“The Hole”). Of the (relatively) mundane variety, however, a trio of stories about the perils of obsessive artistic pursuit provides fascinating meta-commentary on the creative process. Because of the last entry in particular, you will close the volume with the sense that Evenson has one more story to tell—the story of you, the reader, who will move on from reading even as strands of unraveling make it impossible to leave this book completely behind. This isn’t a metafictional gimmick so much as a chilling reminder that the threads of your own world are more stretched than you might like to think.
Evenson’s characteristic habit of withholding information regarding setting, plot, and character may occasionally frustrate even as this same strategy produces unsettling effects in other instances. But whatever your feelings about being propelled into the dark, the brevity of the stories means that the least compelling are over quickly even as the best linger long after finished. The monsters here are more literal than in Crane’s century-old social drama. But the brutal economy and imagination of this latest batch of nightmares nevertheless join Evenson with predecessors like Crane who thrive in minimalist discomfort. What looks simple will waver and slip, trailed by so much strangeness seeping in through the cracks.
Song for the Unraveling of the World
By Brian Evenson
Coffee House Press
Published June 11, 2019
Ben Murphy is a Ph.D. candidate studying nineteenth-century American literature, the history of science, and genre fiction at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His academic research is published in Mississippi Quarterly and Configurations. Other writing—including essays, reviews, and interviews—can be found at The Millions, PopMatters, symploke, boundary2, Full Stop, Gulf Coast, and The Carolina Quarterly. For more, visit his website (benjamin-murphy.com) or follow him on Twitter: @benjmurph