Brian Evenson’s ‘Unraveling’ gets under your skin

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 - 5:02pm

Scary stories are one of humanity’s oldest traditions. Every generation has made wolves out of shadows on the walls, huddled around a fire telling tales of horror and intrigue. It’s something that never gets old, horror; as time goes by, it merely changes. Brian Evenson’s newest collection of short stories, “Song for the Unraveling of the World,” is a modern take on this ancient tradition, one that fuses classic horror tropes with an uneasy feeling of contemporary reality. These are stories to tell in the dark for adults, ones that creep up your spine in the middle of the night, urging you to turn the light on again just one more time, lest something be watching you.

Evenson’s writing would be frightening for any age demographic, but the collection’s themes tend to hit home even harder for an adult reader. “Unraveling” unpacks various issues in each story’s plot, the overarching question being that of self-development and belonging. The author has an unusual fascination with the concept of skin in a traditionally gory horror sense, but also in the meaning of “skin” as it pertains to identity, our comfort with ourselves and the bodies we inhabit. In stories like “Leaking Out,” “Shirts and Skins” and “Sisters,” Evenson bridges the gap between the physical representations of skin and the symbolic ones, offering his reader somewhat abstract plots that analyze fear in an innovative fashion. He is not only in the business of scaring his audience ― he also wants them to think.

In several stories throughout “Unraveling,” that thought can be more frightening than the content of his writing itself. In the eerie “Room Tone,” a film director goes to gruesome lengths to achieve the perfect silence, and yet, the gruesomeness of his acts are not the scariest part of the story. It’s the sheer obsession that drives him to these extremes that is truly terrifying, making the reader ask themself, could I be capable of this? However bizarre or improbable, “Unraveling” highlights the darkest corners of the human mind, those parts of our psyche that are buried deep, waiting to be coaxed out. Throughout the collection, these questions are often what enhances the existing horror narrative, coloring Evenson’s stories with an uneasy sense of reality. The unstable relationship many people have with their own identities is echoed in many of these narratives, all with an unsettling twist.

Evenson is a master of weaving traditional horror tropes with an almost psychoanalytic approach to worldbuilding, allowing his characters’ states of mind to influence his audience’s perception of their surroundings. For the author, a story is not made up of set components ― setting, character, motive ― but rather an amorphous glob of them all, shifting in the wake of his narrators’ own thoughts.

This style is closer to reality than most fiction; it shows the frail nature of the world around us, as our understanding of it changes on a moment’s axis. It is difficult to review Evenson’s work because it is so dependent on its reader’s state of mind, almost like the literary equivalent of a mood ring. For an audience to judge his writing, they must experience it themselves, influenced by their own perceptions and insecurities of identity. That is the brilliance of “Unraveling” ― it does not hand over a perfectly built “scary story,” but instead reveals the horror that already exists all around us.

 
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“Song for the Unraveling of the World”

Brian Evenson

Coffee House Press

June 1, 2019