In "Black Bark," the first entry in this pleasingly weird collection of short fiction, Brian Evenson tells a creepy story about an unfortunate horseman. Mortally injured but apparently unable to die, the man assumes a spectral state and delivers an existentialist warning to a freaked-out friend.
"Every time you think you have the world figured, trust me," he says, "that's just when the world's got you figured and is about to spring and break your back."
These are words of caution that could appear in any of the tales in "A Collapse of Horses."
Some are disorienting. Most are strange. All are unpredictable. They include killer storms, ghostly visitors, excruciating surgeries, terrifying hallucinations, shootings, stabbings, head injuries and absolutely appalling meals.
Evenson is a writer with an uncommonly dark vision, and in 2016 he figures to find his biggest audience yet. "A Collapse of Horses" is one of four Evenson titles that Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press will publish this year (the other three are reissues of the prizewinning novels he started publishing in the '90s). A 17-story sampling of his wild imagination, this is a provocative and thoroughly entertaining collection.
The story that best showcases Evenson's talents might be "Any Corpse," which is set post-apocalypse and involving an economy centered on cannibalism.
A parable of senseless death and surreal ingenuity, it focuses on people who must take extreme measures to get by — they dine on their deceased neighbors (as long as they're "unmaggoted"), or try to revivify them when they're feeling lonely. And because the premise is so outlandish, it frees Evenson to indulge in some exemplary gallows humor — the title is actually a grim punchline that, when phrased in the form of a question ("Any corpse?") takes on a particularly sinister hue.
Several of Evenson's other stories speak to one another in satisfying ways.
The dying man in "Black Bark," the book's opener, keeps vanishing under perplexing circumstances, leaving behind a silhouette of gore that his terrified friend thinks of as a "blood angel." The last story, "The Blood Drip," covers similar ground — one member of a traveling duo suffers a bad wound, but "just kept riding," Evenson writes, "an impossible amount of blood seeping from his leg and down the side of the horse, the blood painting a shape on the horse's ribs, a vaguely human figure, like a man in a robe or an angel."
The connection between the two stories is made more explicit when the dying man in "The Blood Drip" unnerves his companion by telling him a campfire yarn that sounds a lot like "Black Bark." It's a self-referential nod with a thematic purpose, linking the book's first act and its curtain-closer in gratifyingly eerie fashion.
Evenson does something similar with "Seaside Town" and "The Window." In the first story, a man is haunted by a "large black shape," which foretells "his undoing." In the second, "a dim, vague shape" descends upon an apartment-dweller, convincing him that he'll soon "be dead or gone or both."
The apparitions in these pages don't assume recognizable forms, and they don't attack; they lurk, portending doom, which will arrive on its own idiosyncratic timetable. This, of course, makes them all the more disconcerting — and all the more at home alongside the other oddities and atrocities in "A Collapse of Horses."
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.