Sometimes when I wake in the middle of the night, I perceive multi-limbed figures climbing the walls, or sometimes floating above my bed. Barely visible, they resemble misfolded shadows in the dark, terrifying for a few seconds until my brain rights itself and the room returns to normal. I’ve realized these figures are the death throes of dreams, clinging to conscious life before being blinked away.
The particular strangeness of Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses is reminiscent of these nighttime delusions. They depict incursions of unreality, and the desperate fumbling for understanding as the world comes apart.
Like dreams, these unsettling tales are brief, sparse, have a distinct feeling of ephemeralness. They feel like snapshots of compounding strangeness, and leave a deep impression of unease in their wakes. In brief anecdotes, Evenson explores intimate stories of paranoia, loss, fear, confusion, all permeated by a chilling offness that is sometimes supernatural, sometimes not. These are stories about trying to steady reality before it comes loose; they are fables for the depersonalized.
A man is haunted by a midnight shadow in “The Window.” In “The Punish” a childhood game makes a disturbing resurgence between two grown men. “A Report” depicts a political prisoner, jailed for unknown transgressions, desperately seeking redemption as he listens to the sounds of torture outside his cell walls. And in the titular story, visions of collapsed horses, somehow both dead and alive, prompt a narrator’s spiral into homicidal madness.
Conspicuously placed among these is “Three Indignities,” the shortest of the collection, which catalogs in a few pages the protagonist’s experience with the removal of a tumor from his jaw. In sparse and clinical prose, we watch as the nerves in his ear are removed, the dead appendage sewn down, feeling both there and not-there. This sense of alienation prompts a reflection on his earlier CAT scan, the ritual of the contrast injection, and the panic from the eventual push into the machine. Finally, after enduring the pain of catheterization and cytoscopy, the story draws to its grim conclusion, which most potently evokes the uncanniness permeating the entire collection:
“When it was done, the question he had to ask himself as he lay there shivering was what, if anything, was there left of him worth saving?”