Brian Evenson has for many years been one of America’s chief practitioners of innovative dark fiction. His work regularly adopts and breaks free of sci-fi and horror tropes. It captures our oldest fears and bleakest futures in admirably hard, detached, concise prose. It freaks me out, and I love it.
Among the numerous plaudits for his work, his 2019 collection, Song for the Unraveling of the World, won the Shirley Jackson Prize for a single-author collection. His new collection, The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, should gain similar recognition.
In the following interview, he discusses some of the most distinctive elements of both this new book in particular and his writing in general. I am grateful for his time and his generosity.
Marcus Pactor: Many of the stories in this collection feature variations on common subjects of classic horror literature: possession, darkness, and ghosts. I am particularly fascinated by the idea in “Myling Kommer” of “a ghost of sorts, but not a ghost exactly.” This simple phrase seems to open a free space in which you can draw on the traditional concept of ghosts without feeling at all beholden to it. Does this understanding of a free space seem correct or at least plausible to you? Would you describe your process of reshaping these common subjects?
Brian Evenson: It does seem correct to me. I think I often find myself thinking about genre, fictional constructs, traditions, etc., in a way that pays attention to the back alleys and hidden corners of them. That’s certainly the case with both possession and ghosts in these stories: I’m trying to make increasingly delicate approaches to those two ideas in such a way as to peel back the skin we know and see what else might be moving around inside there. That’s not to say that the peeled back skin isn’t there still afterward: it is, but tattered now, and revealing glimpses of something beneath.
Of course, other writers have done this as well. The way Algernon Blackwood approaches things like hauntings is often quite unique: you know he knows ghost stories (and in some stories uses the idea of ghosts fairly traditionally), but he often brings something different to it which changes the feel and the effect for the reader. Even his very posture of being in the world, the particular way he relates to nature, can color the stories in curious ways. Or I think of Oliver Onions, who wrote one of my favorite ghost stories, “The Beckoning Fair One,” in which almost nothing happens, but he makes that almost nothing happen in an incredible way … Or Robert Aickman, whose ghost stories often take strange turns. I may well be taking my cues for how I choose to operate from those three writers, as well as a few others.
In terms of how I reshape those subjects, it’s probably pretty particular to a given story. Something like “Myling Kommer” draws fairly directly on the Scandinavian idea of the myling, which is the psychic remains of an unwanted child killed by its mother. It’s also called, in Norwegian, an “utburd” (I use a similar word, “utbird”, in another story called “The Oxygen Protocol”, to make an imagined creature that’s drawing on the concept but bringing other things to it as well), which means something like “thing taken outside”. When you think of the fact that during many months of the year anything taken outside and abandoned would quickly die of exposure, you realize that word has a nice sublimated threat to it. Anyway, I start with the myling, but then allow it to be transposed through translation and become its own thing, partly because the narrator isn’t sure what a myling is from the explanations his relatives have given him. The uncertainty of it makes it more troubling to him. Other stories take different strategies but the effect is the same: I’m taking some idea, bringing my own particular focus and concerns to it, and then seeing how it develops without worrying at all about where it originally came from.
MP: In addition to those reshapings, you often develop images in one story and rework them in another. Domed cities, for instance, recur in several stories. And the passageway and trees in “Palisade” return as another passageway and a pine scent in the title story. These recurrences gave me the impression of, if not a shared universe, a series of parallel universes which binds the collection together in a unique way. Did you have these connecting images in mind when you began writing these stories, did you find yourself increasingly connecting the stories while assembling the collection, or am I making all this up?
BE: Yes, I love those moments in which images in one story reappear in different forms in other stories. I’ve always done that to some degree, but in my last three collections I have become very deliberate about the way I’m doing it—starting with the way “Black Bark” and “The Blood Drip” very deliberately echo one another in A Collapse of Horses.
Increasingly I think of these collections as creating a deliberate and purposeful structure rather than something that simply gathers stories that I’ve written during a particular time period. There are stories in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell that I wrote before Song for the Unraveling of the World, and even one story that was written before A Collapse of Horses, as well as stories that I wrote when I was putting Glassy Floor together and then decided to save for a later book.
In some cases I have those connections and echoes in mind from the start. I knew, for instance, that moments from certain other stories were going to come up in the title story, though I sometimes had a vague idea of how much until I wrote the story. More than that, though, I often found when I was writing something that a phrase or an image would come up during the writing process that was close to a phrase or image in another story. Whenever that happened, I let it happen. But I generally don’t add those in when I’m putting the collection together; it’s usually in the initial writing of the stories.
I want those links and ligatures across the collection because it makes it feel more like a collection and less like a random collection of stories. I want the ideal way to read my collections to be to read the whole collection in order—I want the act of that to give my readers a little extra reward. But I also love the effect it can have on the reader when they slowly begin to realize the echoes that are there—ideally, you begin to feel like you’ve read something before, experience a certain déjà vu, feel haunted.
MP: I have always been struck by what I am about to call your weirdening terms. These terms are obviously strange but also precise, and they are a key way of orienting readers to a story’s world. I’m thinking about terms like “progeny” and “familiar” in “Of Dreams” and the “skew slosh of metal” and “carapaced” in “The Shimmering Wall.” Such terms are not present on every page. They are not even present in every story. Their rarity suggests that their use and placement is the result of great deliberation. How do you go about choosing the weirdening terms themselves, the stories in which they are needed, and their placement in those stories?
BE: Those are more intuitive than deliberate. They come when they want to come, and I welcome them when they do: I try to be attentive to their arrival. It’s very intentional to keep them, and some I end up editing out because they don’t feel quite right in the long run. Frequency of them depends a little on the kind of story I’m writing: my novel Dark Property, for instance, probably has three or four per page. They also come up at every stage of the editing process; I can be revising a sentence and suddenly one will come to me, and then I decide in later drafts whether to keep it or not.
MP: Along the same lines, each description of a person or place in your work is distinguished from the norm in at least one way. In the title story, for example, a hotel’s room numbers are burned into the wood. How do you know when you have found the right distinguishing detail, and how do you judge when you have too many or too few distinguishing details?
BE: That detail of the number burned in the wood is taken from an actual place—though a somewhat different place than the one described in the title story. My mind tends to collect those odd little details and dredge them up later (I’ve probably taught my mind to do that). That hotel is a combination of about a half dozen places I’ve been to or stayed in: the ceiling is from a place in the American west, the strange room is from a friend’s house in another country, the detail of the gate and the parking comes from somewhere else, and so on. But it’s also become a very specific place in the process of writing it and has real enough now that I could draw it out on graph paper if I had to, or could give you directions for how to get from one part of the hotel to another. With places described in my fiction, I know that I have the right distinguishing details when I can navigate the space smoothly in my head. But I don’t always put all those details in, partly because it would be boring, partly because I want those details that will make the space come alive for readers in their own heads.
Are there moments where additional details might fill the picture in more? Probably. I tend toward concision, so I think, aesthetically, I probably include fewer such details than the average writer. But that also means that those details really need to matter. I think of detail in fiction as being both evocation and provocation. A detail evokes a thing or a place or a person who is not actually present and it should provoke the reader to imagine that thing or place or person as if actually present in a way that fills them out much more than the evocation. I want my reader to have an embodied experience with the work.
MP: I am about to belabor you with a third question about description. You move with apparent ease from in-depth precision to intentional vagueness. A great example of this move occurs in neighboring paragraphs in “To Breathe the Air.” In one, we get an amazingly clear picture of the surgical alterations which have been made to the narrator’s face and throat. This is soon followed by a much plainer description of his counterpart’s face as hideous and inhuman. You could obviously describe this face as well as you described the alterations. What leads you to describe things like the former so precisely and things like the latter so vaguely?
BE: Well, this is a very good question. I think there are probably patterns in terms of what I do and don’t choose to describe precisely, though I feel that’s largely intuitive as well. In the story you’re talking about, I felt I needed those very specific descriptions of the surgical alterations of the throat so that later I could have the narrator do something with his throat in a way that would be convincing. Faces, on the other hand (if hand’s the right word), have a different sort of function in the story, and I think we do better with the plainer description, partly because I don’t want readers to determine too much too early about whether the citizens or the narrator’s people are more human. Or rather, I want to describe just enough that the reader’s understanding might change when the story nears its end.
I do something similar when I describe the little device his father has made which he can blow on and make a blade flick out. I could have described that a lot more specifically, but I don’t gain enough by doing so. It’s a question of balancing purpose, pacing, necessity, and the joy the language can give—which is really the way I think about writing in general. I tend to think about writing as a kind of hydraulic system where you’re trying to get the levels right, trying to get everything up as far as it should go without having anything spill over.
MP: Many of my favorite stories in this collection have great settings: the islet in “Palisade,” Festus’s studio in “Haver,” and the hotel in the title story. How much did you know about these places before you began writing, and how much did you discover along the way? Do you generally think of yourself as a planner or a discoverer of your fiction?
BE: I’m a discoverer. I knew there’d be an island in “Palisade” pretty quickly, but not from the very beginning, and the exact nature of the island and the house on it was something that developed as I was writing the story itself. Once I was writing it, I found myself drawing in bits and pieces from places I’d been or seen, but in a way that made something different from anything I’d seen exactly. A huge part of the enjoyment of writing for me comes in those acts of discovering and creating. The studio in “Haver” is based relatively closely on an actual space I’ve been in, though also transformed—though at this point I think the way Keith Adams depicted the space in his short film adaptation of my story, Chromophobia, has partly replaced it:
I’ve talked a little about the hotel already above, but I’ll add a few things here. It wasn’t that I sat down and built the hotel in my mind and then wrote the story. It was that I started writing the story and then began to build parts of the hotel. I built the gate closing off the parking lot by writing it, then by describing her journey to the door of the hotel built everything along the way. Until I needed them, most parts of the hotel were blanks, but when it became necessary for the character to pass through them I found my mind gravitating toward pieces of other places I knew and then sewing them together in a way that I hope is seamless, and also in a way that wasn’t afraid to take liberties …
MP: Some of these stories explore possibilities of human extinction. This species-wide focus seems like a change from the more narrowly focused dooms of individual humans which are characteristic (in my view) of your short stories. What do you think has drawn you now to the theme of extinction? What differences, if any, do you see between writing about the end of particular humans and the end of humanity?
BE: I think it’s largely the time we live in that’s drawn me to the theme. It’s hard not to be concerned about the extinction of our species, particularly if you have children, which I do. And it’s also hard, at least for me, not to think that we deserve in some ways to go extinct as a species. One of the characters in one of those stories suggests that it would be better for every other species on the planet if humans went extinct—which I think is pretty much inarguable. At the same time, the way we seem set on going extinct is making it so that we’ll take a good portion of other species with us, and even have many of them lead the way …
But I’ve also been influenced by other writers. Most recently, I think Gyneth Jones’ Proof of Concept had a huge effect of me. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future did too, though it almost feels more like an essay than a piece of fiction.
It does feel different to be writing about the end of humanity—I haven’t done it all that much before, except in two earlier books, Immobility and The Warren. And pieces like “Curator” and “The Extrication” feel like they’re deliberately taking on larger issues and themes in a way that I rarely do—though they’re still nicely grounded, I hope, in the individual natures and eccentricities of their central characters. I suspect it’s a mode I’ll continue in. A number of my recent stories seem to have that focus; for instance, this one at Tor.com.
In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His second collection, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, is forthcoming from Astrophil Press. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, (b)OINK, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.