Brian Evenson and the Basics of Violence
When I first learned about Brian Evenson, I was told two things that turned out to be true. One was that he was the kind of horror writer my restless and elitist horror tastes had been looking for (the recommendation wasn’t put to me in those words, but at least I know myself), and the other was that Evenson’s early fiction had gone some way towards a mutually agreed upon excommunication from the Mormon Church. In this case the Mormon Church was represented by Brigham Young University, where Evenson was teaching at the time. His first collection of stories, from 1994, Altmann’s Tongue, contains in its 2002 reprint an afterword by Evenson describing how this specific book led to the excommunication. It also details his philosophy of writing, his disenchantment with Mormonism (which preceded objections to his fiction), and much else, though Evenson does pull up short, cautioning “Talking about one’s stories is a little too much like nailing a dog to the floor—you can get him to stay put that way but it doesn’t do much for the dog.”
This is a fittingly grim analogy, because in Evenson’s fiction, cruelty and violence come at the reader relentlessly. Evenson won the O. Henry Award for his story “Two Brothers,” which is about a vaguely evangelical family (the specific denomination is never clarified) made up of a father, a mother, and two young boys. At the very beginning, the father, Daddy Norton, takes a bad fall and breaks his leg. Refusing professional medical help on the grounds of religious belief, not only does the serious and painful injury become infected and slowly begin to drain the man of life, but the boys, Theron and Aurel, decide, in the ignorance of their youth, to take out the frustrations of their brief lives both on their father and mother. This includes removing their father’s eyes:
[Aurel] opened his eyes to see Theron leaning over Daddy Norton, holding the remains of the man’s eyelids closed with his fingertips, though when he released them they crept up to reveal the empty sockets. Theron twisted the man’s neck and rolled the head, directing the face toward the floor. He wiped the knife on Daddy Norton’s shirt. Putting the knife into Daddy Norton’s hand, he stood back. The fingers straightened and the knife slipped out. He folded the fingers around the haft, watched them straighten again.
About violence in his own writing, Evenson writes that he wants to depict it “in a way that allowed readers, if they were willing to keep their eyes open, to perceive [it] not as symbolic, not as meaningful, but as a basic and irrecoverable act … as insignificant in that it doesn’t signify anything … as neutral and blank and indifferent.” This accurate self-reflection was, apparently, a major source of the conflict between Evenson and BYU. That BYU’s attitude towards Evenson’s artistic freedom in the 1990s would so closely reflect a growing censorious attitude in the country as a whole in the 2020s might be regarded as, I don’t know, ironic by some. Similarly ironic is the fact that “Two Brothers” added a bit of heat to Evenson’s growing reputation, which was being stoked by literary intellectuals who also happened to be genre hounds, like Michael Dirda, Jonathan Lethem, and Samuel R. Delany. Who knows what its fate would be, if first published today? Not an O. Henry Award, I don’t think.
If all of this makes Evenson’s fiction sound like an exhausting, depressing slog, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. Apart from the stories so far described being gripping and fascinatingly unsettling in their own right, Evenson shows throughout his work that he has many arrows in his creative quiver. For example, in the first collection of Evenson’s stories I read, The Wavering Knife, you can find a rather gentle, bloodless (in the literal, visceral sense) satire called “Promisekeepers,” which is about whom you’d imagine it’s about. Also in The Wavering Knife (a really excellent book to start with, as it displays a nice variety of what you can expect from his stories) is one of his best works, “The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette.” It’s the story of Kohke, a man who, at the very beginning of the story, shoots his lover Bein in the back of the head while the latter is eating breakfast. We’re told that Kohke had his reasons for doing this, but at the moment the trigger is pulled he can’t quite bring them to mind. In any case, Bein doesn’t die, and in a panic Kohke hides his gun in a pitcher of orange juice and calls for medical help. Bein is now paralyzed from the neck down and blind. Even though the police find the gun quickly, at the hospital Bein absolves his lover of all blame, and Kohke is a free man. The question now is, by what other means can Kohke end their relationship? Initially, he refuses to accept Bein back into their home, but then decides this is suspicious, and soon the two are living together again. Kohke, however, feels strange about rolling Bein’s wheelchair over the spot where he’d been shot, so he rents the apartment downstairs, which has the exact same floorplan as their home, and so shouldn’t confuse Kohke’s blind lover. And yet:
“This is my bed?” Bein asked. “It doesn’t feel like my bed.”
“Nothing feels the same after you’ve been shot, Bein.”
“How would you know?”
“That’s just what they say.”
This has been my way of trying to convince you that there’s a great deal of humor threaded throughout Evenson’s bleak and violent world, but I won’t blame you if you don’t see it, or it doesn’t land for you. It’s not the kind of humor that takes the sting out of everything in the story that surrounds it.
Evenson also writes novels. In fact he’s about as prolific in those as he is in story collections. In order to earn a buck or two, he’s written novels set in the Dead Space and Alien universes under the name B.K. Evenson, and even co-wrote the novelization of Lords of Salem with Rob Zombie (I would love to know if Evenson gets any creative satisfaction out of this kind of work; not that it matters one way or the other, but I’m curious). But I’ve only read three of his personal novels: The Open Curtain, which deals with a murder spree conducted by a descendant of Brigham Young (I’m sure BYU loves that one); Father of Lies, which is about a provost from a Mormon-esque religion who has a long history of molesting children from his congregation (I’m sure BYU, etc.); and Last Days, a novel that mixes hardboiled crime with cult horror. It’s very Cronenbergian, that last one, as the members of the cult in question raise their status in the church by removing parts of their bodies. It’s the first Evenson book I ever bought, though I didn’t read it for years because I thought the cover was appallingly cheap-looking (this has since been fixed—the Coffee House Press reprint really did Evenson a solid on that one). Having since read it, I can say it’s one of the best things Evenson has written, and one of my favorite horror novels.
Last Days is a complex thriller, filled with scenes such as Kline, the protagonist, being chased by a man who is missing fingers, thereby exposing him immediately as a cult member, and an enclosed, quietly apocalyptic ending, one that will affect everyone in the story, but no one outside of it—not you or me, for example. Near the end, after a burst of violence from Kline, he confronts Frank, a cult member of great status. After Kline describes what has just happened, Evenson writes:
“Jesus Christ,” said Frank. “Talk about an avenging angel. And now you’ve decided to turn yourself in?”
“That’s right,” said Kline.
“So I can be human again.”
“Buddy,” said Frank. “Look at yourself. You’re covered head to toe in blood. You’re never going to be human again.”
This seems like a rather good statement on the matter of violence, should one wish to be a bit more plain-spoken on the subject.
I don’t know how Evenson feels about being lassoed into the horror corral, given that the description of his autodidactic literary education in the afterword to Altmann’s Tongue shows no leaning in that direction (as a student and young teacher, he read a lot of dark literature, but not a lot of Stephen King, if you get my drift), but he doesn’t seem to object particularly. He’s won several awards from various horror fiction societies (science-fiction societies too, as there’s a long strain of horror/SF hybrid stories in his bibliography, especially recently) and he hasn’t angrily turned any of them down. Perhaps he’s happy enough being that rare thing, a writer embraced by both the genre and literary communities. I wouldn’t claim him to be a household name among horror fans, but horror fans who know what the good stuff is know Brian Evenson. And if those folks are too wrapped up in one kind of fiction, perhaps they’ll notice that Evenson has written non-fiction studies of the minimalist writer Raymond Carver, and the modernist Robert Coover, and they’ll become curious who those writers are, and they’ll take a leap. Stranger things have happened.