A Lesson in Horror from Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson’s new novella, The Warren, opens with a declaration of documentation:

I shall begin this written record by reporting the substance of our last conversation—which was not only the last conversation I had with Horak but the last I had with anyone or ever expect to have.

The most unusual word of the sentence, “substance,” is the tenth word out of twenty-six, and it comes right after the second most unusual word in the sentence, “reporting.” The sixteen words that follow “substance,” excluding a character name, are some of the most frequently used words in the English language. Most of them are widely used in primary school. In terms of density, the first ten words account for almost half of the letters in the sentence. The sentence is top-heavy—unbalanced.

The sentence is unbalanced in other ways, too. All of the semantic tension is created in the last five words, “or ever expect to have.” These five words do all the work to reveal the uncanniness of the world we’re about to enter. At the very least, they reveal there is something gravely wrong in the world of the narrator who is to be our guide.

This summer, Brian Evenson taught a horror writing workshop in Transylvania, and I was lucky enough to attend. One thing I learned is that a feeling of unbalance creates a sense of horror in the reader. In the first sentence of The Warren, the feeling of horror is intensified by layers of imbalance. There is physical imbalance, semantic imbalance, and finally, logical imbalance.

This first sentence establishes a few facts. Two people had a conversation. These two people were the narrator and Horak. The conversation was important enough to record. Horak is no longer around. In fact, there is no one else around that the narrator will speak to. Most likely, there is no one else around at all. These “facts” raise some questions. Who is Horak? Who is the narrator? What is their relationship? Why did he use the word “substance”? Why is Horak gone? The plainness of “or ever expect to have” when disclosing information that is undeniably unusual creates an imbalance between the language and the content—an imbalance of logic.

The story continues, “Perhaps the last conversation that any two humans will have, if he and I can be said to both qualify as human.” This sentence undermines several of the assumptions that were established in the first sentence. What makes this disquieting is the narrator’s uncertainty about his humanity. A character who does not know if he is human is much scarier than a character who knows he’s not.

Evenson said that horror begins as a story that seems normal but then shifts to something weird. The narrator declaring to document the last conversation of his life is serious business but is still within the realm of normal. When the humanity of that narrator suddenly becomes questionable—even to himself—we enter the realm of the weird.

The third sentence forces the reader to pause in this state of unease: “There is apparently some debate on that score.” This is where the story makes its promise: It will keep you up at night.

As it turns out, the first sentence of The Warren is the last time the world of this novella feels normal. Every detail added to the story seems to solidify the narrative, only to further dissolve it.

The first sentence of the second paragraph begins, “I did not know how to make the machine function properly.” The mention of a physical object is grounding, even if the narrator does not know how to make it work. However: “and did not know either how to shut it off—it was not me who suspended him within the machine in the first place.” If Horak is the one suspended in the machine, and if the narrator is not the one who suspended him, there must be another character—unless the narrator is lying.

Evenson’s sentences are deliberately constructed to demolish security. When something is not right, but we can’t place a finger on what is wrong, it becomes uncanny. The Warren traps the reader in this uncanny place from the very beginning with no hope of reprieve.

One of the central questions we discussed in the horror workshop was, “What makes horror, horror?” This is a hard question to answer because—as Evenson explained to us—horror is the only genre that doesn’t have a recognizable trait. Romance has love and sex. Science fiction has fictional technology. Fantasy has a world full of made-up creatures. What do all horror stories share?     Yet it’s clear when something is horror. The breathing stops. The hair stands. Fingernails get chewed.

In workshop, Evenson gave us some advice. One, Show you are a good dancer early on. In other words, moments of misdirection require trust in the author, so establish your authority early on. In The Warren, Evenson does this with his opening sentence. Another piece of advice was, Don’t promise anything you aren’t going to give a reader. Evenson promises early in The Warren to make the reader feel unhinged, unable to discern what is “reality” or “humanity.” He delivers on this promise. Which brings us to his third piece of advice: Good fiction is like a virus. It changes us and the way we view the world.

Kafka demonstrated long ago with “Metamorphosis” that blood and gore are not necessary for horror. Evenson demonstrates in The Warren that even if there is blood and gore, it may not necessarily be the source of the horror.

Mika Yamamoto‘s work has been published in ESME.com, Noon, Rumpus.com, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. She currently resides in Michigan with her resilient succulent.

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