REVIEW: A Collapse of Horses, by Brian Evenson

** / *****

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.


Young actors astonish in EPAC’s Waiting for Godot

Street parking came shamefully easily on Friday night in downtown Endicott. It was a shame because Washington Avenue and EPAC’s Robert Eckert Theater should have been overfull with people coming to this season’s thrilling production of Waiting for Godot.

Samuel Beckett’s absurdist allegory, written in 1949, is alive and well under the care of director Patrick Foti and some tremendously talented young actors. Tickets remain available for Saturday’s show and Sunday’s matinee

The play tells the story of two hobos waiting in a desolate spot (not unlike purgatory) for a God(ot) who never comes. They could pass their time creatively, or philosophically—or romantically, one supposes—but in typical Beckett fashion, they mostly natter about the mundane or body aches while they “pass the time.” Occasionally they consider hanging themselves from the scenery’s solitary tree, but even that task is too daunting for this pair.

The slightly smarter of the slow-witted duo is Vladimir, portrayed by Matt Gaska. The actor avails himself wonderfully in the role, as does Dustin Hirthler, who plays Estragon his trusty dusty sidekick. Both young men are thrilling talents and destined to go far beyond the streets of Endicott.

These thespians modulate their voices with masterful appropriateness and comport their bodies with precision. Like me, you may be surprised to find that WFG is a much more physical play than you remember, with dashes of almost Marx-bros-level shtick and some wince-inducing tumbles. These fine actors, especially Hirthler, who is a pliable noodle, can do whatever the stage requires of them.

The quiet touches, though, are where Gaska and Hirthler truly shine. The former uses subtle movement—the fingertip twirling, the bit of pigeon toe—to imbue his role with vibrant life. Both he and Hirthler have excellent voice and face control, and there are moments when the desolation demonstrated by the latter’s frown moved an emotion in this reviewer’s heart that is too often obscured by a crusty boulder. Well done, lads.

Eventually in the play, someone else does arrive, a Falstaffian figure named Pozzo (POZZO!) who keeps another, exhausted human as a slave, leashed by a rope around his neck. Here Beckett hits his point squarely on the nose by naming the latter character Lucky. Interpret that as you will.

More amusing nonsensical dialogue ensues, while our initial hobos struggle to make sense of and converse with the blustery master who mistreats his ward. Eventually, they persuade Pozzo to allow Lucky to “think”, which unleashes a tour de force torrent of uninterrupted, bombastic speech that lasts for minutes while the hobos roll around in apparent discomfort. First, be careful what you wish for, bums. Second: How remarkable it is that the oppressed man had so much to say, but sadly, when finally given the chance, he says it all at once and it comes out as blithering nonsense.

Here, one must stand and applaud the talent of newcomer Nicholas Dabbracci.

As Lucky, Dabbracci spends much of his stage time bent-backed, breathlessly obeying his master’s commands, lugging bags, and near death, mostly. His two big moments in the play come when he is permitted to dance and then think. The dancing is a histrionic performance of explosive spastic movements that, as Beckett intended, startles the audience after so much aimless dialogue.

When Lucky is ordered to think, boy does he have stuff on his mind. Unfortunately, given the chance to finally express himself, all he can do is spitfire, micro-machine-announcer style, a diarrhea dialogue that prattles on forever, signifying nothing. While Dabbracci is mid-rant, after what already feels like minutes, one asks oneself, “How is he doing that?” And by the rap’s conclusion, when his counterparts and his audience feel obliterated by words, there comes an audible sigh of relief from the crowd and an urge to give Dabbracci a standing ovation. It’s a stunning stage debut.

The play continues. Pozzo exits, intending to sell Lucky at the market. A child messenger (played by the winsome Ciaran Kane, who does his damndest to keep a straight face, God bless him) arrives to relay the news that Godot, while not busy, will not be visiting today. Please try back tomorrow. 

And so the hobos do, and once again wait. Pozzo and Lucky return, the same but different, what with the master being afflicted by sudden blindness and therefore even more dependent upon his servant.

Brett Alan Dewing plays the part of Pozzo and was more settled into the role in the Second Act. Physically he is perfectly matched, but he lacks the vocal command of his play partners. His yelling at Lucky in the First Act is too loud, as though he’d been directed to go to the top of his register, a Spinal Tap 11, when a nine or even eight would suffice. Still, he fits the Pozzo costume perfectly, and it can be hard to find nuance when playing smarm, which he lays on thick. He’s a one-man marching band, blaring through a dust bowl and a perfect foil to the faded Vladimir and Estragon.

Finally, Pozzo and Lucky depart again. The messenger boy returns to announce: sorry, no Godot today, but try again tomorrow. The play ends with our hobo heroes exactly where we found them, still waiting for Godot.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see these excellent performers delivering the goods in a great play at EPAC this weekend. To do so would be not so lucky.

Unpopular Opinion: Glass Onion, not so shiny.

By Russell Richardson

As busy parents, my wife and I rarely have time for a movie night. When Christmas Eve presented such an opportunity, we chose Glass Onion, Rian Johnson’s sequel to his enjoyable Knives Out, which promised to be an equally light-yet-twisty, Agatha Christie-esque ensemble piece without any excessive grimness, explicitness, or violence that would have been too heavy on Christmas Eve, especially with Santa’s cookies waiting to be eaten on the table before us.

We should have picked the Weird Al bio-pic.

In G.O., a group of five unlikable, Colorform characters—all close friends, we’re meant to believe—is summoned to the island of billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) for a murder-mystery weekend. Among the guests is a governor (Kathryn Hahn), a Twitch-streamer (Dave Bautista), a former model (Kate Hudson), a brilliant programmer (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and Hercule Poirot—nay Benoit Blanc, the world’s preeminent detective, although who exactly invited Daniel Craig’s cunning cornpone is unclear. You’ll remember him from Knives.

The fifth “friend” invited is Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), the co-founder of Bron’s Google/Facebook/Tesla-type company and who was recently betrayed by Miles in court. Tension looms as we learn that all the friends are all unhappily beholden to Bron, and when one guest dies, Blanc sets out to figure out whodunit and why.

The film begins with each of the five friends receiving and trying to solve a puzzle box sent by Bron. The puzzle box is a fun conceit and as the friends video conference, working together to find a solution, their personalities are revealed by dialogue, actions, and locations. The bit runs long, however, and by the time they’ve opened their boxes and extracted invitations to Bron’s island, I found myself already tired of their company.

Meanwhile, we find Blanc feeling bored and trapped indoors by COVID-19. In fact, we’re led to assume that the pandemic will feature prominently in the film, but no. Neither the virus crisis nor Blanc’s boredom has fuckall to do with him going to the island (as we eventually learn). We encounter no masks for the first ten minutes of the movie—no one wears them at Birdie Jay’s party, not even the sensible-seeming, cameoing Yo-Yo Ma.

When the cast assembles on a dock and waits to board the island-bound boat, they’re inoculated by a mysterious spray—administered by guest star Ethan Hawke—that absolves them of any coronavirus concern for the movie’s remainder.

So, why acknowledge the COVID crisis at all? The vaccination rounds might serve to further characterize the characters, but these are cardboard cut-outs already. We can guess that the Twitch streamer will be corona-skeptical and that the flaky model would wear a mesh facemask. The whole dock sequence felt like a waste of time, and the pandemic is just another story block that connects with nothing else down the line. But shhh—your enjoyment of the film requires you not to question it.

Everyone arrives at the island. Everyone sucks. We follow them around and learn all the ways Miles Bron holds power over their lives. He is so rich, he has the actual Mona Lisa at his compound because the Louvre needed money during the pandemic. Your response might differ, but I thought, “That’s stupid.”

But that’s not the stupidest thing about this movie.

We spend an hour with Benoit Blanc as our eye into this world, our POV character, only to learn that we’ve been misled by him. After a dramatic murder, Johnson Scooby-Doo’s us back to the week preceding the start of the movie. We find out that Andy has evidently committed suicide but has an identical twin who brings Bron’s puzzle box to Blanc. Sister wants his help to prove that she was murdered. Together they will go to the island and find the evidence they need. She’ll cut her hair to look like Andy! She’ll study Andy’s copious journals to get into character!

My complaint: the twin-sibling-stand-in is a groan-worthy trope. If I was surprised by the “twist” at all, it was that after an hour of build-up, I didn’t expect Johnson to reveal such a hackneyed gimmick.

The intention is clear. Knives Out had an endearing protagonist, and Johnson wanted the twin sister to connect with the audience, especially since all the other characters suck suck suck. Yet, the sister arrives too late, and we’re given little reason to care about her, except that she wants justice and has an adorable accent.

Your response might differ, but I thought, “This is stupid.”

But that’s not the stupidest thing about this movie.

We learn that Andy once wrote a master business plan on a cocktail napkin while with friends at their favorite dive bar. She shared the plan with Miles and together they formed Google, Twitter, or whatever. Later, due to irreconcilable differences, Bron squeezed her out of the company and claimed to have drawn up the napkin. Their friends, by now all subordinates to Miles, lied in court to corroborate his story.

The whole movie hinges on this napkin. Here’s the problem: if Andy was such a meticulous, daily diarist that her twin sister could learn everything about her life—and after only a brief period of study!—then the napkin is meaningless. Andy’s attorney would need only to submit into evidence those journals in which she would have fleshed out her business blueprints.

Also: Why again does Miles often carry a blow-torch device? He doesn’t smoke, right? It’s just a Chekhov’s Gun, intended to set the napkin on fire in the final act, right?

Alas, what a disappointing installment in an otherwise promising franchise. The broken chronology of the film does it no favors, none of its characters are likable, and the red herring napkin that serves as the movie’s fulcrum is pointless. And for all this they destroyed the Mona Lisa?

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