Brian Evenson's astonishing new collection from Coffee House Press, A Collapse of Horses, coincides with the re-release of three previous works: the much heralded novels Father of Lies, Open Curtain and Last Days. Each cover depicts an illustration of part of a creature that when taken together form a beast that doesn't exist.
There's an apt metaphor here, but a misleading one. While these stories have all the earmarks of Evenson's fiction with varying degrees of violence, horror and dread, A Collapse of Horses doesn't complete the picture of Evenson's career so much as spin it in a number of fascinating new directions, each more unsettling than the last.
There are stories of thieves on horseback disappearing into the wilderness and holing up in a cave, off-planet drillers toiling in increasingly toxic working conditions, survivors of an apocalyptic conflict bartering with machines for scraps of meat, but no matter what genre Evenson appears to be working in, the most crucial action takes place between the ears. These stories rely less on lush language and body horror than the annihilating dread of uncertainty.
As the antagonist of "Black Bark" suggests in the opening story, "Every time you think you have the world figured out, trust me, that's just when the world's got you figured out and is about to spring and break your back." The story starts with a lone rider on the trail at dusk but ends up someplace inexplicably weird and utterly unique.
In "Past Reno," a man's attempts to confront his past are stymied by an unsettling memory of his father forcing him to go down into a dark and musty storm cellar filled with strips of drying meat. When his father asks him, "You seen it?" the boy nods, but in truth the boy doesn't know what he's seen or was supposed to have seen or what any of it might mean. The story's power stems not from what might or might not have been lurking in that cellar, living or dead, but the man's inability many years later to put the question to rest. This troubling lack of resolution curdles his imagination and becomes its own dark thing capable of ruining intentions and destroying reason.
The longest story in the collection is "The Dust," in which a crew of workers on a distant planet measures its dwindling resources against a ticking clock. Without giving too much of the plot away, "The Dust" presents the reader with a twist on the classic lifeboat dilemma by pitting the solidarity of the group against the desires of the individual. However, Evenson isn't interested in that kind of dichotomy. By introducing a dash of uncertainty—"And what if the dust wasn't just dust, but something else entirely?"—the story collapses into a paranoid fever dream.
Another example of this deadly uncertainly occurs in "Blood Drip," which closes out the collection and serves as a doppelganger-bookend to "Black Bark." A man alone in the wilderness imagines he hears a spring and becomes thirsty. "But when he tried to look for the stream he could not locate it, and the sound never seemed much closer." Did he hear the sound and in his confusion miss the spring? Or did he imagine the sound and invent the spring? Either way he continues wandering, his thirst very much real.
There's a tendency to view stories that don't resolve with suspicion, as if they were engines with some kind of design flaw. That's not the case here. In A Collapse of Horses, Evenson takes his characters to the point where their uncertainties crystalize into a course of action from which there is no coming back. To see this as a deficiency is like saying that a story of a man who falls off a cliff is cheapened by not reveling in the splat.
Perhaps the most telling tale in the collection is the title story, which begins at the end: "I am certain nobody in my family survived. I am certain they burned, that their faces blackened and bubbled, just as did my own." These opening lines evoke a great many feelings: confusion, horror, pity, disgust, but certainty isn't one of them. A Collapse of Horses explores the horror of living in a world that resists being figured out until it's much too late.