Book Review: A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson

“Some of the best work by the author to date.”

horsesA Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson collects some of his most powerful short fiction for the first time in one spectacular volume. The collection is one piece of four books recently released from Coffee House Press. The other three books, Last Days, Father of Lies, and The Open Curtain, form a picture when you align the covers together. The image, a wolf/man hybrid designed by Evenson’s daughter, is stunning in execution and fits the collection perfectly. The seventeen stories in A Collapse of Horses are a great place for readers to test the waters with one of the giants of the genre. Evenson’s style is best described as quietly intense with a heavy dose of disturbing, and these books by Coffee House represent some of the best work by the author to date.

Readers will find themselves thrust directly into worlds much like our own, familiar in setting and filled with haunted characters we can relate too, often more than we wish. Other worlds are dystopian, often apocalyptic, and you may wonder if the Western setting in one story wasn’t actually post-apocalyptic. It is here we find that genre doesn’t matter, for Evenson’s style is open enough for the reader to step inside the world and decide for themselves while the story pummels their anticipation of reality to smithereens.

Peter Straub has said that Evenson’s fiction extends ‘furthest out on the sheerest, least sheltered narrative precipice’, and these tales bring that apt description home. Bordering the grey area between literary and horror, the stories allow us to get as close as possible to the point where madness begins to boil over into certainty. ‘Scour’ conjures images of a sandblasted landscape, where the only solace is the comfort of strangers, a comfort without freedom until we can finally strip away the very thing that makes us human. With ‘The Dust’, we suffocate on trust, chasing honesty into a dark corner only to discover the lies we tell ourselves. ‘Past Reno’ reminds us that we really can’t go home, that there is no refuge in the past, only more questions we don’t want to answer. Time and space no longer ground us in ‘The Moans’ while the same concepts bind us to our destiny in ‘The Blood Drip’. If any of these tales have one thing is common, a central theme perhaps, it is that the characters often straddle the edges of confusion, wondering where they are, who they are, why they are. ‘Click’ is one such story, perhaps the epitome of the ghost of a theme that courses through the narratives. Here we meet an unnamed protagonist, unable to remember events he may or may not have been a part of. Reality bends as the other characters become caricatures, and the narration shifts in perspective ever so slightly. The effect is disturbing, bringing to mind the frantic, jittery imagery of Jacob’s Ladder examined through the lens of a camera-eye designed by Charlie Kaufman. Evenson’s narration brings that sense of dangerous bewilderment to light to turn it over under a microscope, to observe and record it from a safe distance.

The feelings of confusion take away nothing from the narrative power; instead, the effect is one of visceral intensification. Evenson’s strength comes his ability to pull readers directly into the unknown, and allowing them to co-exist in the same headspace as his characters. He refuses to spoon-feed the story to you, so you must fill in the blanks with your imagination. There’s very little backstory in most of these stories, quite simply because it doesn’t matter. The only thing that does matter is the now, and yet the past is still ever present, lurking behind the curtains, able to reach out and touch the characters, and readers, especially when they least expect it. Evenson navigates purely by instinct, continuously moving the narrative forward, and the discoveries that lie ahead are personal, and as important to him as they are you. You sometimes get the feeling that the characters are unsure of their surroundings, or their circumstances, and maybe Evenson himself was unsure. This kind of writing asks more questions than it answers, and is satisfied with unsettling your expectations. Perhaps his intention is more concerned with that same discovery, the unease that tickles you right at the edge of disturbing, the intersection of reality and the unnatural, and then you realize there is a comfort zone after all, and you have been there the whole time.


Publisher: Coffee House Press
Paperback (240pp)
Release Date: 9 February 2016

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