{Book Review} Song For The Unraveling of The World by Brian Evenson

For those of you who are fans of Brian Evenson, you know that he is a master of creeping dread, of the “not quite right,” and the horror that those concepts entail. But for newcomers to his particular brand of terse horror, who is Brian Evenson? His awards include an International Horror Guild Award and the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel, but also three O. Henry awards. He is an academic, author of works of literary criticism focusing on Raymond Carver and Robert Coover, as well as a teacher in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.  Evenson is a translator of French fiction into English. He has written horror novels that thread the needle between genre fiction and literary fiction in addition to decidedly commercial novels set in both the Aliens and Dead Space universes under the name B.K. Evenson. Clearly, as an author Brian Evenson has got a whole lot going on at the nebulous and ever shifting way point where the genre and literary meet, with his latest collection Song For The Unraveling Of The World being his latest exploration.

Brian Evenson has been described as a “literary minimalist,” which is an apt description but one that by no means tells the whole story.  Minimalism does not equate to simplicity, as the prose you will find in Song for the Unraveling Of The World will illustrate. Where other horror authors tend to lush descriptions of characters, setting, and events to build a world for the reader to temporarily inhabit, the beauty of Evenson’s work is that it requires so much of the reader that you become complicit in the events.  This is a fine line for an author to walk, yet Evenson is able to evoke with this negative space feelings that are simultaneously his and his reader’s.  

No story illustrates both minimalist style and simultaneous literary/genre space as the first story in the collection, “No Matter Which Way We Turned.”  Written for People Holding, a short fiction literary journal where authors write about the lives of people in found photos sent to them by the editor of… well people holding stuff.  Barely a page long, Evenson is able to take a photo and weave what has easily become my favorite piece of horror flash fiction.  Selected by Ellen Datlow for inclusion in both The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Nine and The Best of the Best Horror of the Year: 10 Years of Essential Short Horror Fiction, no further praise should be needed.  You can actually read it for free on the People Holding website and I really recommend that you do. “No Matter Which Way We Turned” is not particularly indicative of the length of the stories found in Song For The Unraveling Of The World (although some are fairly short) but it does show off the power of his prose, a style where every single word pulls its weight.

 The photo sent to Brian Evenson that served as inspiration for “No Matter Which Way We Turned”

Additionally, every single time Evenson evokes a genre trope, it is for a reason and in furtherance of some desired effect.  This can be seen best in the story “The Hole” and again in “The Smear” where he adds some science fiction elements to create a gripping horror story.  In “The Hole” we learn little about the mission that the characters are on, but when one is described as “The Captain” and another as “The Security Officer” we fill in the blanks.  Where science fiction so often describes and dwells on the hows and whys: how does the spacecraft propel itself, how does the life support system work, why are they out here on this mission, it is refreshing to read a work where the answers, if applicable at all, are up to you and the real focus of the writer’s efforts are on the story.  In “Lord of the Vats” he does it again, only this time with a swift nod not only to science fiction tropes, but also to those of Lovecraft.   

One of the great joys of reading a Brian Evenson collection, from the viewpoint of an avid horror reader, may well be the included stories that lean heavier on the literary side and less on the horror side.  His collections are unusual liminal spaces between these two worlds, as evidenced by where these particular stories were originally published.  “Lather of Flies” was originally published in the Lost Films anthology from Perpetual Motion Machine Press, edited by Max Booth, and easily one of the top horror anthologies of 2018.  “Shirts and Skins” was published in Hunger Mountain, which is the literary journal of The Vermont College of Fine Arts.  The split is roughly 50/50 when it comes to stories that were originally placed in publications that are clearly genre vs those that are on the literary side.  Of course, we shouldn’t dwell too much on genre specifics; the story is far more important than the act of fitting it into a single genre box.  Yet it is illuminating for a horror reader to read his more literary short stories and notice the slight shifts of tone and subject that make the story a better fit. 

Evenson walks the literary vs genre tightrope, uses minimalist prose to great effect, and has a sharp eye for application of conventions… yet these reasons alone are not enough.  Evenson’s work, especially what is collected here in Song For The Unraveling Of The World, becomes more than the sum of its parts and goes from interesting literary technique into haunting stories that stick with the reader long after reading. Despite the perceived simplicity, each one of these stories is disturbing to the core and in its own unique way. It could be real or perceived madness, a not quite right relationship, or an ill-fated journey mundane or fantastic… each one is a gem. This is where the real magic happens and the reason that I am constantly recommending Evenson to horror readers and always recommending him to writers of every stripe. 

Song For The Unraveling Of The World will be available in trade paperback and eBook formats June 11, 2019- just click our affiliate link to the right and head on over to Amazon to pick up your copy or order it direct from Coffee House Press. Looking for more horror fiction that will make you think?  The best way to keep up to date with all of our news, reviews, and analysis here at Signal Horizon is to follow us TwitterFacebook, or subscribe to our newsletter below.

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