The Uncanny, the Unsavory, the Uncharted: A review of Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unravelling of the World
Review by Gregory Ariail
Brian Evenson’s new story collection, Song for the Unravelling of the World, grafts an exciting new limb onto his corpus of weird horror. Vanishings, doppelgängers, monstrosities, and monomanias haunt the book from cover to cover. Evenson’s clean, snappy, minimalistic style drives you onward, making the reading experience smooth and pleasurable and your appetite for uncanny violence larger than you ever thought it could (or should) be. Song reads like an ode to Beckett and Lovecraft while firmly rooting itself in the new weird genre, established and extrapolated by writers like Evenson himself, Thomas Ligotti, Jeff VanderMeer, and China Miéville. While not a far cry from the content of his other collections, such as Windeye (2012) and Collapse of Horses (2016), Evenson continues to unravel his idiosyncratic skein of speculative fiction and explore the seams and corners of his imaginary in ways impressive to behold.
In the book’s opening story, “No Matter Which Way We Turned,” we meet a girl with no face, with “hair in front and hair in the back,” as well as her opposite, “a girl who, no matter where she turn[s], always face[s] you.” Evenson’s semiotic horror often depends on twofold values, repetitions, mirrorings. In the next piece, “Born Stillborn,” this pattern continues, when the protagonist, Haupt, is visited at night by the sinister twin of his daytime therapist. An unsettling conversation between Haupt and his “night therapist,” about the differences between peeling the skins apples and bananas versus human skin, sets off an ominous chain of events that likely ends in cannibalism (one of Evenson’s favorite themes). As we proceed through the stories, a monster in an abandoned mansion disguises itself in a human skin suit and hungers after the protagonist’s own epidermal sheath. A pair of bored, homebound demon sisters “ooze out through the nostrils” of their human hosts and possess the body of a mannequin on Halloween in an effort to understand the logic of human festivities, in a droll ethnographic adventure that goes awry. A cyborg in “Kindred Spirit” fails to stop her frail human “sister” from committing suicide and resolves that she “will not rest until…[she] too [is] dead.” Bodies without organs, surfaces and vessels, preoccupy Evenson, seemingly because they act as borders that separate epistemological certainty from uncertainty, the categorizable from the un-categorizable, the customary from the taboo.
So many characters (and things) disappear in this collection, which is in love with ghostly fluxes; one moment they are there and the next they are transported, without a trace, to some alternate realm. Take the title story, for example. In “Song for the Unravelling of the World,” a man who has abducted his child and barricaded her inside his house finds, one morning, that she has vanished. Impossibly vanished, since he’d taken all precautions to prevent her from leaving or from others—and especially his ex-wife, his neighbors, and the police—finding out about her existence. The only clue to her whereabouts is a vague singing in the walls, resembling his daughter’s voice, but also different, like a song in an unknown language. “Wanderlust” tells of a man, Rask, who abandons everything, his “good job,” “delightful girlfriend,” and “excellent apartment” because he has the nagging feeling that he is being watched, and wanders through interwoven and interchangeable Calvino-esque cities in order to escape the phantasm that harries him. Perception and misperception, and the vibrant space between these two poles, are in constant tension in Song. So many stories involve some permutation of a “rip in the air,” “a smudge,” “a blot or spot,” “a discoloration,” “a seam where reality had been imperfectly fused,” etc. Film becomes a medium for interrogating these interstices in stories like “Room Tone,” “Line of Sight,” and “Lather of Flies,” which all throw into chaos typical patterns of perception and vandalize the coherence of images, introducing a high quotient of misrule into the phenomenal world.
The instability of language—especially during times of psychological distress—is another theme Evenson ponders frequently in Song for the Unravelling of the World. In “The Second Door,” a sister’s language metamorphoses into an incomprehensible “clatter of metal,” leaving her brother to doubt that she is his original sister, but rather a copy that must be eliminated. A character in another story, who occupies a ruined tower in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and who has been half-eaten or half-possessed by another creature, has “a strange warble to her voice, as though she were speaking underwater.” A monster in “The Hole,” who has invaded the bodies of the crew members of an interplanetary vessel, has trouble negotiating singular and plural pronouns (since it is now a multiple being), and must experiment with the “eccentricit[ies]” of a newly acquired language.
Evenson goes to great lengths to undermine, to deterritorialize, to estrange us from our linguistic and ontological habitats. He breaks the iron grip of realism and peels back the monstrous underbelly of life, much like his predecessors in the weird genre. Evenson pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft, in particular, in “Lord of the Vats,” wherein yet another monster breaks into an interstellar craft. The only surviving crew member sees “nonsense words” etched in the floor:
Anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos will immediately recognize the cosmic entity, the mysterious Old One, Yog-Sothoth, from “The Dunwich Horror” and other stories; and in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, this particular incantation is used to reanimate the dead. Evenson cleverly appropriates this slice of Lovecraft lore for his own horrific narrative ends in “Lord of the Vats.”
While there is a fair amount of conceptual recycling, and one encounters similar ideas and problems in multiple pieces, Evenson always finds ways to add nuance to well-trodden ground. Almost every story instilled me, at some point or other, with that sense of creeping, intellectual dread that is Evenson’s calling card. For lovers of the weird and horror genres, this is a collection not to be missed. Check it out on June 11.