Book Review : Brian Evenson - A Collapse of Horses (2016)
Brian Evenson doesn't need any introduction to readers of this site. They know how highly I think of his work, which I can only describe as a minimalist compromise between horror and psychological thrillers. Evenson himself likes to call it terror. His short stories have always been a tad more challenging for readers because of their original, but fragmented nature. Each story is so demanding and immersive, it's tough to repeatedly start over with the same focus each time. A Collapse of Horses is Brian Evenson's latest short story collection and, to my knowledge, his best and most accessible yet. I would even perhaps call it the gateway drug for those who want to get into his work.
There are two stories from A Collapse of Horses that particularly stuck with me. The first one is The Dust, a 50-pages murder mystery featuring space miners. This is as awesome as it sounds. A stranded mining colony is struggling to keep up oxygen reserves while an unknown dust is infiltrating the compound and seemingly turning miners against one another. Brian Evenson has a thing for writing quirky murder mystery-pieces. The Sanza Affair in Altmann's Tongue was another long and intricate one inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's Purloined Letter. Last Days would also qualify as a murder mystery, I suppose. The Dust is not the most Evenson'esque piece in A Collapse of Horses, it has a classic, James M. Cain-like quality to it. And it doesn't really offer resolution...which is a Brian Evenson thing to do, though.
The other story from A Collapse of Horses that really stood out to me was Cult, featuring a protagonist who cannot stop himself from advancing towards his own self-destruction. He gets stabbed by his unstable girlfriend in the beginning and keeps seeking her out despite the fact she is clearly trying to take her distances. She doesn't seem to have any use for him, but he goes out of his way to contact her after she joins a cult and changes her name. I found Cult to be oddly moving, coming from an author who's appeal is primarily cerebral. The protagonist's obsession over giving meaning to his pain echoes the religious obsession over martyrdom. Religious parallels are somewhat of Brian Evenson's own obsession and he makes one of his smartest, most nuanced ones here.
Among the other stories I've enjoyed in the collection are Past Reno, where the protagonist's understanding of his own environment disintegrates once he's getting closer to his father's funeral, like his grief created a wormhole into another dimension. Black Bark and The Blood Drip captured Cormac McCarthy's bleak, post-apocalyptic western atmosphere without being a copy. It added a shamanistic, almost supernatural layer to it. I've quite enjoyed Three Indignities also, despite that the intense body horror made it difficult to read. It could've easily been used a prequel story to iconic novel Last Days. The protagonist is said to be physically ill by modern science, yet suffers mostly from what the doctors are doing to him. He puts his fate in a scalpel, like one would in a religious relic.
The stories in A Collapse of Horses are about the unknowability of the world. It doesn't matter if you've got all the landscape experience (Black Bark, The Dust) or if you've got what you think is accurate data (Past Reno, Three Indignities), the world will always find a way to remind you that you don't exert any control over it. That it has an endless supply of terrifying surprises for you. That makes A Collapse of Horses a great choice for a Halloween read. There aren't pre-fabricated monsters in it. No vampires, werewolves or even ghosts. Just people who are wandering in a carnivorous darkness. That's fucking scary to me. A Collapse of Horses is more than just a Halloween read, though. It's a fine short story collection you can enjoy at any time of the years, but especially on cold and dark evenings.