** / *****
Recently, I heard an interview with the horror writer Brian Evenson (The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell: Stories) on The Loser’s Club podcast. He is thoughtful about the craft and genre and has collected 11 major awards, including an O. Henry, a Shirley Jackson, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Intrigued, I sought out a short story to sample and found “A Collapse of Horses” in the free online archive of the (RIP) American Reader.
The story’s bones: an average guy meets and marries a woman, they make children and fall out of love; he suffers a skull fracture at work, resulting in brain damage that makes him question his reality, e.g., whether he has 3 or 4 kids, or if the house is secretly conspiring against him, etc., which strains the family. Walking one day, he finds a paddock with possibly dead horses, an image that affects him so much that he becomes even more reclusive and agitated until he finally decides to take action, and when he cannot find the paddock, he sets fire to the house (or imagines he did) and kills his family (or perhaps not). He tells this story to a visitor who, we understand, claims to be one of the “dead” family members; by the end, it’s revealed that she claims to be his wife and he abides this, expecting to eventually uncover what she’s truly after.
Evenson starts in the present with the narrator challenging a visitor. All his family members are dead, so why does this visitor claim to be one? Starting here was wise because it: A) drops us into a compelling scene and poses questions the story will set out to answer (who is speaking? what happened to his family? who is the visitor?) B) bookends the conclusion, & C) is a much more engaging opening than “I was an average guy who attended an average school…”
From there, Evenson forgoes a proper story order again, now jumping to the NEXT major question. This Q concerns a forced Schrödinger’s Cat knock-off—the narrator describes four prone horses on the ground in a paddock, but are they alive or dead? More on that below. Next, the story develops in chronological order and finally returns us to the hopital/psychiatric room where we started.
Rapid-fire thoughts on what I read:
- The thinly disguised Schrödinger knock-off was annoying. Had Evenson added an aside that acknowledged Schrödinger’s famous feline, that would have mitigated my annoyance about him co-opting the idea.
- OK, the horses represent the narrator’s fear of knowing whether his children are alive or dead, but the effect could have been achieved without shoehorning a strained quasi-“deep” allegory.
- I found it difficult to believe that the narrator was so overcome by the sight of the horses that he avoided any chance encounter, finally becoming a recluse.
- Oy. It took the narrator that long to realize that he could just throw a stone at a horse to see if it moved? And are we to believe that suddenly, upon receiving the idea to throw a rock, the terror of encountering them subsided? Oy, twice.
- All the page space devoted to the avoidance of horses and the subsequent search for them felt wasted.
- Of course the farmer would have noticed the horses on his way to the water trough. And because I don’t believe otherwise, the whole horse storyline felt overwrought and tedious. See next point:
- Given the hypothetical situation, the narrator asks, “And what, in turn, carrying that paradoxical knowledge in your head, does that make you?” Make me? This is overly dramatic hogwash. It doesn’t make me anything. Neither the narrator (nor I) have any responsibility for the condition of the horses. And it is not his (nor my) responsibility to yell out, “Hey, farmer! Possibly dead ones over here!” The ‘knowledge’ is not nearly as dramatic or important as the story needs you to think it is.
Something I appreciated, however, is how Evenson takes the bones of a straightforward story (man struggles after TBI) and injects a fun horror trope: the house that incrementally shapeshifts. It’s effective because A) we know that the living house is a figment of his traumatized brain, but B) HE doesn’t know that and treats it as fact. It’s the Hitchcock trick of giving us information that the character either doesn’t have or is unable to use.
EXERCISE: Sketch out the bones of a straightforward story and then inject a horror trope as a secondary (or tertiary) storyline. Present it in a way so that reader understands what is happening, but the character does not.
Unfortunately, I have more items to throw on the Didn’t Enjoy pyre:
- The number of children was a major talking point that amounted to little. One expected the extra (or missing) child to be significant, but the kids never did anything. There was no payoff, e.g., the extra child could have attacked the others, or the parents; or, in a moment of clarity, the narrator could have realized that Hannah is missing and his wife has been canvassing the neighborhood for her; or whatever. Evenson loads this ‘3-4 kids’ gun throughout the story, but never fires it. Rather, it’s merely a water pistol whose only purpose was to illustrate the narrator’s confusion. (And, since that’s the case, then ALL that page space devoted to “do I have three kids, or four” was a waste of our time. SEE: Vonnegut’s Rule about time wasting.)
- The “I took up smoking for a few weeks to have a cover for my arson” was dumb AND even more so when he gives up on trying to start the fire with a cigarette and lights the curtains instead AND even more so when you discover that the fire was imagined. (I mean, come on, it was obviously imagined. Is anyone uncertain??)
- Evenson begins story with a prerequisite gory image to set it in the horror genre, but wait—the narrator allegedly passed out after the fire and never saw his children/family afterward. So how can he describe their burned faces? Maybe we chalk this up to an Unreliable Narrator, but leading with the lie feels like a cheap trick (see my gripe article about Knives Out: Glass Onion). I assume Evenson felt the need to plug in a gruesome image to appearse the horror fan, so chose this. Bah. Maybe it’s petty, but this detail stuck in my craw.
- The narrator claims to worry about his family’s safety in a way that’s intended to convey an emotional affinity (love, even) for them. Yet, none is named—not the wife, not a single kid—nor are they described in any way at all. Perhaps Evenson kept them vague for a reason (e.g., making even their existence questionable), but I found it inconsistent with the narrator’s apparent affection. Even if an Unreliable Narrator, the guy could have worked harder to convince his visitor of his interest in his family. Instead we get fuzzy outlines of characters, and a bunch of page space devoted to the horses. Horse? House? One letter difference?! Wild.
- The story is overwritten, needs editing. Scary tales depend on ambiguity, so they cannot be specific (specificity would reveal too much and dispel the mystery) and thus tend to be padded with vaguely ominous babble. Horses rings in around 4,000 words; a conscientious editor could have sliced it in half. Vague horror stories (there are too many) always feel like the timid work of a writer without strong ideas, or who had a killer set-up but couldn’t devise of a punchline. (SEE: Paul Tremblay)
A reader imagines Evenson sitting down to his computer with the following thoughts:
A) I need a character with traumatic brain injury (TBI) that causes him to question his reality. Lots of horrific potential there.
B) I’ll use the ‘Changing House” trope to root it in the genre and compound his mental strugggle.
C) I need a grisly image to further whet the horror palate…how about the burned, blackened faces of children? That’s sufficiently awful! Bonus: they were burned when the narrator tried to burn the Changing House. BINGO: Father with TBI believes his house is changing by its own volition and when he burns it down, his children perish inside.THE TWIST: Due to his unreliable brain, he might not have burned the house.
D) To execute the twist, I’ll need someone to challenge his perception of reality. How about the wife whom he thought died in his imaginary fire?
D) To suggest intellectual depth, I’ll bastardize a version of Schrödinger’s Cat.
E) The House is a problem. House is close to Horse . . . what about Schrödinger’s Horse?
F) I won’t describe anyone in the story–or anything other than the house–so that both reader and narrator are kept foggy throughout.
G) I will cap this to 4,000 words, which is the maximum tolerance threshold for this kind of vague and paper-thin story.
On the positive side, I am a sucker for the “Changing House” trope, so I enjoyed that aspect of the story. But, despite the creepy house, a few engaging moments, some choice vocabulary (love “paddock”), and evidence of authorial intellect, this piece alone would have quit me on Evenson. With all those awards behind him, however, I am willing to try another story. Send a suggestion, if you have one.