Brian Evenson is the author of a dozen books of fiction: 12 highly-acclaimed novels, novellas, and story collections. He’s the recipient of three O. Henry Awards and a host of other literary prizes, and his success is even more impressive when one considers the fact that his work is uncategorizable. He’s referred to a writer of “literary horror.” And yet that label seems to only partially describe his weird, wonderful, and unnerving stories. In 2016, The New Yorker ran a profile of Evenson that called his fiction “equal parts obsessive, experimental, and violent.”
The stories in his latest collection, The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell (Coffee House), are all of those things. They’re also beautifully and precisely written, elegant, and emotionally complex. I got the chance to sit down with Evenson for wide-ranging conversation.
The Millions: I’d like to start off talking about the story “Myling Kommer” which contains many of the themes that run through the collection. It did something to me that few stories have done: it had me putting down the book and looking behind my recliner as I was reading. I think a really great story of any genre affects us physically—whether that’s a physiological fear response or an emotional one. There’s something interesting about fiction intruding on our physical world and it strikes me that “Myling Kommer” is fundamentally about this dynamic: a story that imposes itself on the protagonist and takes over his life. Is that fair to say?
Brian Evenson: I think that’s fair to say. I do feel like one of the things I’m thinking about when revising has to do with rhythm and sound and all of that is meant to create a response in the readers. Partly emotional, but ideally, a physical response. With “Myling Kommer,” you’re very close to a character who only understands part of what’s going on, you’re figuring it out as he’s figuring it out. As a result, you start to take on what he’s taking on.
TM: It’s a trope of the horror story and many of the stories in this collection that the protagonist enters a space that she or he can’t turn back from; she or he can’t simply walk away. Because these people can’t turn back, there’s this sense we’re dealing with the damned: to not be able to turn back is to be damned. Could you talk a little about that?
BE: It’s an interesting way to think about it. These characters are compelled; that’s a kind of damnation. These characters are making the same mistakes over and over again. There is something about fiction being this kind of trap; and the reader is replicating this process. I think of fiction as allowing the reader to have an embodied experience. The reader might suspect how trapped the characters are before the characters do themselves.
TM: There’s a sense that any character in any horror story has an audience yelling at it, saying “Don’t go down that hall! Get out of there.” And yet there’s a compulsion that drives the protagonist of a horror story that seems almost like an addiction. There’s an addiction to see things through; there’s an addiction to unravel a mystery.
BM: I think that’s true. I think often we have characters who do things that in life we wouldn’t do. This allows us as readers to approach things vicariously. It allows us to experience things we’d never actually want to experience in life.
TM: In my own life, the truly dangerous situations I’ve found myself in have always had to do with not being afraid, with knowing I ought to feel fear, but congratulating myself on not. There’s something very healthy about fear. There’s something about the survival impulse and it seems the horror story is about when that fails, when we ignore it.
BE: I can think of moments in my own life when I was doing something and I thought, This is such a mistake. But I did it anyway. I think you’re exactly right: whatever fear response you ought to have isn’t coming or you have such control over it that you don’t listen to it. And usually that ends up being a terrible mistake. Fear impulses are there for a reason and they’re why our species has survived.
TM: I think your protagonists sometimes congratulate themselves on not feeling fear or being unusually calm—in “Altmann’s Tongue,” the first story I read of yours from your first collection, the narrators prides himself on his calm after committing murder. There’s this sense of “Wow, I ought to be functioning in a standard way, but I’m not and look how special I am.” And that’s when things really fall apart for them.
BE: Yeah, it doesn’t always work out. (Or, it never works out, I should say). I think this notion of being exceptional goes back to my first book of fiction. In that collection, the characters often don’t respond; there’s a lack of response.
TM: And an absence of emotion where we might expect it.
BE: Yeah. And it’s weird because as a kid I was incredibly phobic. I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of the dark; I was afraid of heights. One time we took a trip up into the mountains and I couldn’t even get out of the car. As I grew older, I learned to master those fears. But the thing is: how do you keep those fear responses as something useful as opposed to something that’s debilitating?
TM: As I was reading “Myling Kommer,” the effect of the story was so powerful that I began to think about what the ingredients were for the piece. I started writing things down that I found particularly spooky. And I thought, okay, these are things I’ve seen before: the idea of the very aged being spooky, people with a foot in the next world; codes of seemingly innocuous communication that are gradually shown to have a dark meaning; the ability of language to bring things to life. How did “Myling Kommer” start for you in terms of process.
BE: Part of what I do when I write is I’m playing back into the fears I used to have. There’s a certain amount of authenticity there. For this story, I started with the notion of the Myling, which is a Scandinavian legend where if you have a baby and abandon it to die, it becomes this creature that can haunt you. And then I started to play with that. Then I started to play with a family dynamic that’s not dissimilar to the family I grew up in. Also, my great-grandmother when I was growing up was someone who when she got old lost her ability to speak English and went back to speaking Norwegian. And I have these memories of going to see her when I was seven or eight and her being incapacitated; at first, she would speak Norwegian and then she got to where all she would do was write it. I’ve gathered all those things sort of like a magpie, and then redirected them in ways that have a more universal effect.
TM: Thinking about the women in this story, there’s a comment that you make about women being charged, culturally, with keeping family history and family secrets. And men are often oblivious to these things until they’re educated by these women about codes that have been hidden in plain sight—in “Myling Kommer” there are messages, of a sort, embedded in photographs on the mantle: sometimes the pictures are turned up, sometimes they’re turned facedown.
BE: And there’s something so strange about living in a family. Everyone’s experience is very different. And then one day you realize there are all these things you didn’t know: good and bad. And these secrets can be really unsettling and intense.
TM: I thought a lot about why aged women would be a trope in horror. Once women aren’t seen as sexually viable beings anymore, do they become threatening to us culturally? Why do we have the mythic figure of the Crone? I think your story ties into these deep cultural notions.
BE: I think it’s not only aged women but the aged in general that we have an odd relationship with. But I think you’re right: women are often portrayed in these ways. It’s something that’s fairly extensive, I think.
TM: In the story that opens the collection, “Leg,”—whose premise I don’t even want to reveal because it’s so original and shocking—you introduce the theme of possession that comes up again and again. And the fear of your own body—that there can be a part of your body that isn’t you: a You that is not You. Is that fair to say?
BE: I think that’s true. Possession is a part of this. The body is both a vessel and an instrument of restraint. And, in addition, there are a lot of my horror stories that are about what it means to be or not to be human.
TM: In your fiction in particular, the idea of possession is linked to language, with narrative and voice being viral forces that seize hold of bodies and alter them. Language is an entity that enters us from the outside and reconfigures us.
BE: I think it’s true that language itself is a means of expression, control, and infection in my work.
TM: In terms of setting, a lot of your pieces are set in a kind of characterized no-place, a sort of anti-setting.
BE: Right. I’m very interested in the idea of world building, and I think with short fiction you have a little more leeway with what you leave undescribed. The hotel in the title story [“The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell”] is a kind of amalgamation of five or six different hotels I stayed at. The main thing is that the place has a kind of feeling to it. I think the way world building works in short fiction is there’s a lot that’s suggested and a lot that’s left to be completed. That’s also part of my writing style—stripped down and minimal—and it also allows to the reader to graft their own experiences onto the stories and complete the stories in various ways. You want just enough that you can allow the reader to build a world in their imagination that’s a little bigger than what’s on the page.
TM: It’s both specific and open.
TM: You’ve written numerous times about cults and cult-like groups over the years. I was thinking about your work when I watched the HBO documentary about the NXIVM cult last year. One of the women who becomes an activist against the group—when she showed up to the first NXIVM meeting said that initially all this was B.S. She couldn’t believe the nonsense Keith Raniere was spewing. But then this thing happens where, during her fifth session with the group, something really clicks and all the lazy aphorisms seemed profound. It very much reminded me of the cults you write about.
BE: I watched that same documentary and was fascinated by it. I was raised Mormon and am an ex-communicated Mormon. And it is fascinating to me—and I know exactly what moment you’re referring to in the documentary: where’s that moment you go from thinking it’s all a joke to being convinced all of what you’re hearing is true. And this seems especially relevant to me in the days of Q-Anon. You have all these people who do the same thing. I’m super skeptical of those groups. I think it’s largely to do with my upbringing. I totally understand the appeal of those groups, too. I understand why these members think it’s a joke and then why they suddenly feel terrified.
TM: It seems that Sapiens are such social creatures that it makes sense for us to be in a tight group—that’s the way we evolved—but it also makes sense that, given the way language creates reality and constructs the world that you can enter into a new community or discourse that makes no sense to you but then, as the cult member in your story says, the world of the initiate is “punctured,” and once that membrane is abraded, all of a sudden this new language reconfigures your reality.
BE: Exactly. And I think it’s something that can happen to anybody. These cult leaders are very good at finding the things that can disassemble someone’s notion of the way the world is.
TM: Over the years you and I have talked about some works of literature that are considered great but are willfully obscure: we’ve talked about Finnegans Wake many times. A book like that becomes cultic among the people who study it. I returned to the Wake recently after being away from it for two decades and initially my reaction was, This is such a work of ego and indulgence and purposively obscure. And then it begins to brainwash you. And you’re like, I really see what he’s up to.
BE: That’s a language.
TM: Wow. Yes!
BE: Language is part of the thing that convinces you. You think, “Well, he must know what he’s doing.”
TM: Having followed your work since the 1990s, I’m interested in the way your use of language has changed. In your first collection Altmann’s Tongue, many of the pieces are almost prose poems. In this latest collection, you’ve modulated your voice into something more beautifully transparent and less poeticized. There’s this striking clarity to your prose in The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell.
BE: I think you’re right about that. The language does change from book to book, but overall, the language here is pretty clear and precise. Hopefully, a lot of what the reader is taking in is being taken in unconsciously.
TM: Because the language has this transparent quality, when you use an unusual piece of diction, it’s really hooks into you.
BE: I think that’s true. There are moments of disruption in a relatively smooth surface.
TM: Has writing literary horror changed the way you think about the work of more conventional horror writers?
BE: Yeah. There are these writers who are fairly traditional who get praised who don’t really work for me. Partly, I find that what they’re doing with language isn’t that interesting. And there are other writers who are doing something really powerful, such as Peter Straub; I like his work quite a bit, even though he’s more conventional. But he reads a lot of experimental poetry. He was my entry into horror fiction.
TM: A lot of conventional horror stories are morality tales: a character makes a questionable moral choice then enters the crucible of suffering. But in your stories, often the protagonists suffer regardless of their moral decisions. They’re not being punished for some moral choice; they’re being punished because they’re in your story.
BE: It’s a question of making a choice they’re not even conscious of. A few of my books have come out in Japanese, and when I went over to talk to Japanese audiences, the person who introduced me said my work was all about questions of etiquette. As I thought about it, the choices my characters make are often because they don’t want to offend someone.
TM: Who aren’t people reading as much as they ought to be?
BE: I really love Robert Aickman. His work is really interesting. He writes these things that he called strange stories; there’s this energy there that’s really original and powerful. Anna Kavan is also very good. Her stories are really interesting. I just read a book by Reggie Oliver which I really loved. He has a story called “Flowers of the Sea” that does so many unusual things. As you know, I really admire Joyce—actually, I both love and hate him. I’ve had exactly same experience as you with Finnegans Wake.
TM: You know—I’ve always thought you’d write a gargantuan novel at some point. Maybe that’s just what I’ve wanted to see from you.
BE: That could happen. You never know. I actually have a 72-page outline which, if I write the book it projects, will be massive. I made the mistake of outlining it and making the outline specific enough that now I feel like I don’t need to write the actual book.
TM: It’s a trap! If you map these things out, you feel like you can’t do the actual writing.
BE: I know. I keep thinking that once I forget enough of this outline, I’ll be able to write the novel.
TM: We look forward to it.
—A Year in Reading: Brian Evenson