Between Terror and Horror: A Q&A with Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson is not only a master of horror, he is a master of the short story form. Each of the compact nightmares he concocts is an object lesson in suspense, subtlety, and manipulation of the most primal of human emotions--fear. However, it is a disservice to relegate his work to the realm of genre. While steeped in the tropes of horror, science fiction and fantasy, Evenson’s fiction is highly literary and elusive--leaving his readers with more questions than answers as he chaperones us further into the uncanny with each word. At the same time, though, his stories are also prime examples of how and why such genre works are currently resonating so powerfully with our current cultural milieu. And Evenson’s latest collection, Song for the Unraveling of the World, is more unassailable proof of why this consummate writers’ writer deserves a much larger readership to scare senseless.   

KEATON-  I can trace my love for horror and the fantastic back to my early childhood, with my mom’s Stephen King collection, my grandmother gifting me books on Greek mythology, checking out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark from my school library, and every midnight showing of some schlockfest I could manage to view on TV behind my parents’ backs. But from what I know of your background growing up in the LDS community, I’m guessing such materials weren’t as openly available to you. So, where did your love of horror (and fantasy and sci-fi) come from? What do you consider the inspirations and roots of your own brilliantly macabre writing?

BRIAN EVENSON-  My parents were pretty atypical Mormons.  They were both liberal (at least in Utah terms) and my father was the head of the local democratic party for a while. They were also strong believers in the library, and they pretty much let me check out anything I wanted to check out, even things that I might have doubts about letting my own son check out.  I remember when I was six or seven we went to Aspen, Colorado and stayed for a few days. There was a chalk drawing contest that a local bookstore was putting on and I that I participated in. Since I was essentially the only one in my category I won. The prize was a book. They had a range of children's books to offer me but I wanted a book called Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, which had a lot of photographs of the gruesomely dead.  My dad, for whatever reason, after much discussion, was willing to go ahead with it and ended up paying the difference between the children's book I would have gotten and that book.

That was probably a turning point for me. A later turning point would have been when I accidentally stumbled onto New Wave Science Fiction when I was bringing SF books home from the library.  Suddenly I was reading SF in which the stakes were different and which sometimes questioned the social order. Reading Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard, Samuel Delany and Gene Wolfe, I suddenly realized that genre fiction could be just as sophisticated as literary fiction. My Mom also read Poe stories to me and encouraged me to read them myself, which was important.  And my father introduced me to my first Kafka stories. I see them both as Mormons who had a liberal streak and who did the work it would take for me and my brothers and sisters to break away from the church in a way that my parents couldn't (and maybe weren't interested in doing). They taught me to think for myself, which, in Mormon culture, wasn't exactly typical.

KP-  For you, what is the difference between horror and say psychological suspense? At what point does one become the other? And furthermore, how do you define fear and how do you seek to invoke it in your readers?

BE-  John Clute in The Darkening Garden makes a distinction (drawing on Ann Radcliffe) between terror and horror.  Terror is the feeling of dread and tension that comes before the horror, while horror is the revulsion and fear that comes once the event is made manifest. He'd put psychological suspense in the terror category, and I think most of my work would qualify more as terror.  I tend to focus on the terror that comes before the apocalyptic moment or, sometimes, on the aftermath: what it's like to pick up the pieces after the disaster. Even a story like "Leaking Out" which a lot of readers see as one of my most frightening is frightening because it doesn't spell the specifics out of what happens to Lars--the fear is based on me forcing the reader to fill in the blanks.  There are, occasionally, graphic moments in my work, but they're rarely the point.

KP-  In Song for the Unraveling of the World and your other story collections I’ve read, I notice certain recurring tropes--the sloughing off or putting on of skins, people gone missing who come back changed or whose disappearance changes those they leave behind, supernatural beings seeking to pass (at least fleetingly) for human. What is it that draws you to such literary scenarios and occurrences? Do you see them as themes in your work, simply coincidences or something else entirely?

BE-  There are definitely certain things I return to.  Once I've written about skin once, it's pretty likely I'll circle back to it. They're not themes so much as tropes, or ideas with lots of resonance that deserve to be taken apart in different ways over the course of a number of different stories. I think very consciously about how different ideas or images can communicate across different stories. Indeed, when I'm revising my stories for a collection, I'll sometimes put even slightly more emphasis (not much) on those connections.

KP-  Your stories and novels feel so intensely airtight and plotted that their endings seem almost inevitable. That is not to say the outcome is obvious; they also thrive on what you don’t write--that inherent uncanniness of the unknown. So, how do you envision these works while in the process of creating them? Do you have a story arc all laid out when you begin, or does it develop more so as you go along? And how do you find that kernel of inspiration to begin in the first place?

BE-  I think my biggest strength as a writer is precisely that: what I leave unsaid or unstated. I almost never start a story knowing exactly where the arc of it will go.  The few times when I've done that, I've lost interest in the story. Why write it if I know where it's going. More often, I'll have a sense of a direction or a vector, usually somewhat vague, and there'll be a point about 3/4ths of the way through the story when everything will suddenly cohere and come together and I can see, in a flash what the story will do.  In terms of a kernel of inspiration, it can be the smallest thing. I've learned to trust in the tug of something small, something coaxing me into a story, and trust that my subconscious will arrange it in a way that lead to an effective story. I find that my best story develop in ways that I can't consciously predict.

KP-  Horror is without a doubt experiencing a renaissance right now, seeing the genre as more acceptable and respected as it has ever been in both fiction and cinema--from you and Paul Tremblay to Jordan Peele and Ari Aster to name but a few. Why do you see this boom as happening now? Are there any recent works of horror fiction or film that you feel are especially potent?       

BE-  Yes, there does seem to be a lot going on with horror right now, perhaps because of where we are politically, at least in part. I admire the people you mention (Get Out and Hereditary were great, and Paul Tremblay's fiction is wonderful), but in addition to them, I think Nathan Ballingrud's Wounds is a very strong collection of stories.  Laird Barron's short fiction is really terrifying and incredibly well written. Also there are stories by Kelly Link ("The Specialist's Hat" for instance) that strike me as about perfect. Simon Strantzas's Nothing Is Everything is also very good, and has been unfortunately overlooked. In terms of film, I liked You Were Never Really Here tremendously, I liked The Witch, and though I can understand people's objections to Neon Demon I thought it was pretty great. Mandy and the remake of Suspiria both definitely had their moments as well...  I liked A Dark Song a great deal as well.

Brian Evenson’s Three Items of Interest

1. "Darkness" by Van der Graaf Generator (song):

2. Gene Wolfe, "Tracking Song" (story starts on page 123):

3. This image by Pierre Schmidt:

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Song for the Unraveling of the World Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566895484
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Coffee House Press - June 11th, 2019

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