Books

Brian Evenson
A Collapse of Horses

The stories in the American author Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses are presented as “literary horror”. The New York Times has compared Evenson’s writing to that of Kafka and Poe, while also acknowledging the influence of Stephen King. Evenson’s stories undoubtedly belong to a masculinist tradition, but it is more a popular than literary one. This is owing to Evenson’s mistrust in the power of implication, and a formulaic repetitiveness in plots and characterisation.

In the title story a man begins to lose track of how many bedrooms there are in his home but also how many children he has. Because his wife will not agree to move from this house that “wasn’t acting like a house”, he plans a fire, intending to save his family. One can guess how things turn out and speculate on what that disaster implies, but Evenson spends two pages explaining the events and the man’s state of mind.

As in King’s fiction – The Shining, for example – the horror in Evenson’s stories often revolves around a man having a mental crisis, usually culminating in a shocking act of violence. Given the number of stories involving such plots – “The Punish”, “The Dust” – such climaxes quickly cease to be surprising.

Consistent with such plots, women are often figured as monstrous and duplicitous – if they appear at all. In “Cult”, a story that resonates with King’s Misery, a man commits to a cult in a desperate bid to isolate himself from a violent and controlling woman. In “Seaside Town”, another man is at the mercy of a woman who seems to have an “extra row” of teeth. Stephen King once nominated the “vagina dentata, the vagina with teeth” as his greatest fear. Notably, Evenson’s story “Three Indignities” ends with a man being held down by a female nurse in hospital prior to a procedure on his penis. 

With the exception of the genuinely Kafkaesque “A Report”, which focuses on a mysteriously incarcerated man (a trope unfortunately revisited in other stories), Evenson’s writing generally demonstrates a lack of mystery and cleverness despite insisting on those very qualities. Some thought-provoking and memorable “literary horror” has been published in recent years, such as Ali Smith’s Hotel World and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. Evenson’s masculinist tales of delusion and violence will appeal to readers of King and perhaps Chuck Palahniuk, but they bored me.  KN

Text, 240pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "Brian Evenson, A Collapse of Horses". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: KN