I tell this story a lot: One night, during a family Christmas gathering when I was little, I saw a ghost. I think I saw a ghost. Holidays were always spent at my grandparents’ house, which now belongs to someone else. My uncles and aunts and cousins crowded inside and we’d all share bedrooms due to the sheer number of us present. That year, I shared a trundle with my mom, with me on the bottom bed. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought I saw her moving past me towards the door, maybe to go to the bathroom. I turned back around, pushed my head into the pillow, and saw my mom sound asleep on the top bunk.
There is a rip in reality that happens in moments like these. Physical reality is still there, recognizable to your eyes and your brain, but with one core component missing or added. Maybe I hadn’t fully woken up yet, just some dream left over. Maybe my mom had been going to the bathroom, but I fell asleep before she returned and momentarily woke up when I turned around. Maybe it was my dad; he wasn’t with us on this particular trip but maybe he wanted to surprise us. Each of these failed to pass my bullshit detector because the glimpse I got of the shadow was very specific. It was shorter than my dad and wider than my mom. Crucially, the space between the edge of my bed and the door was less than four feet. I should have heard something as it moved across the floor.
Instances like these are fertile, perhaps even tame, ground for a writer like Brian Evenson. In his latest, excellent collection of stories, The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, the uncanny is commonplace, and what is truly strange to his characters is not why something is happening, but why it is happening to them specifically. Evenson’s purview has always been wide, spanning numerous genres and forms, both under his own name and the pseudonym B.K. Evenson, where he writes novel adaptations for video games like Dead Space. The publication of his controversial (to Mormons at least) debut collection, Altmann’s Tongue, paved the way for his eventual resignation from BYU, where he was teaching; Evenson later left the Mormon Church altogether. Since then, he’s published several novels, short story collections, and novellas that all turn to varying degrees on the flaws of human perception and the flaws of being human as a whole. Can you trust your senses? Can you trust other people? Are other people even real?
Take one of my favorites from The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, “Myling Kommer.” Its protagonist starts out as a boy visiting his great-grandmother in a nursing home (medically incapacitated characters are frequent in this collection). His great-grandmother is practically catatonic, unable to speak or move much. The few times she does so, she writes out a series of seemingly nonsensical words, two of which are “myling kommer.” None of the characters in this story show much sympathy for this old woman’s condition. The protagonist’s mother is curt and impatient with her grandmother’s feeble attempts at communication. There is the scent of bad blood in the family. Not long after, the great-grandmother dies and time passes. The boy becomes a young man in college, but the past still haunts him. He’s curious about his great-grandmother, especially after finding an old photo of her in which she is virtually unrecognizable. The meaning behind “myling kommer” and the well of hatred it contains is both shocking and tragic. There may very well be a family curse, one instigated by an act of violence, but its function is difficult to parse. By the time the protagonist begins to understand it, it’s already too late.
That’s one example and, as is true for most of Evenson’s collections, there isn’t another story like it in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell (which very much feels like the “cellar door” of titles). Post-apocalyptic sci-fi, an Evenson specialty, makes several appearances, along with Cronenberg-inspired body horror, fantasy, and what I suppose could be called gothic mystery. Genre both does and doesn’t matter here. As a marker for narrative expectations, the delineation between, say, literary fiction and steampunk might be useful. But Evenson’s project is more deliberately omnivorous. A train ride through the country can turn into a card game with the devil. An alien abduction can transform into a darkly humorous riff on human rituals. A forest may choose to save you or take your body and replicate you into a kind of zombie horde. There might be a sentient prosthetic limb.
Last year I began corresponding with Evenson over email and after reading Glassy, Burning, I recently spoke with him over Zoom. Over time, I’ve learned that artists who traffic in the dark tend to be some of the warmest, most well-adjusted people, which applies here. Among other things, we talked about how he sequences his collections, what he’s been reading (a lot of Algernon Blackwood and Anna Kavan), his stint writing for the upcoming HBO adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s The Son, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Denis Villeneuve, (“If you’ve read the book, you’ll be pleased by what’s there and surprised by what’s not”), and what Glassy, Burning is dealing with thematically. “There’s an eco-horror theme, which points a bit towards my next collection,” he told me.
Those who have read Evenson’s previous work will recognize this, his exploration of the end of days, particularly what happens to humanity after. Much of the fiction inspired by COVID-19 attempts to reproduce reality, with vivid illustrations of the dour, “true” behaviors of people in denial. Evenson finds this trend, which extends long before 2020, a little trying. “Over the years, I’ve been pretty impatient with mimetic fiction,” he told me. “It’s not that interesting to me or it ends up being interesting by accident.” In Glassy, Burning, the worlds presented are recognizable, but only just. And its human characters tend to ask a recurring question: What if Earth is better off without us? Not only that, but what would it mean to ensure that humanity never returns? These are heady, seemingly nihilistic questions that Evenson doesn’t bother answering. Instead, his characters take them as givens and go about their projects of annihilation with determination.
Reading these stories in the midst of COVID-19 might inspire readers to draw contemporary parallels, but Evenson told me he draws more on the broader downward trend of our world. “I grew up in the ’70s when the country was having a gas shortage and there were lines at the gas pumps. I remember thinking then, ‘We’re in trouble.’ Then Reagan got elected and it was like the whole country forgot. And I thought, ‘Wait, what about all the stuff I was worried about before?’ As time’s gone on, that feeling has really caught up.” That sentiment reverberates throughout Evenson’s work—a lack of certainty about the stability of the world and the soundness of mind of others.
Which is why, before we ended our conversation, I wanted to ask Evenson what draws him to horror and the darker corners of sci-fi and fantasy. In his work, you don’t find catharsis so much as validation, a sentiment he agreed with. “I don’t feel any catharsis with it, but there is something slightly comforting about being miserable and feeling that that misery is everybody’s.” Those moments of uncertainty, when intrusive thoughts bring the unspeakable to the forefront, when your life feels both real and elusive, like your body or your mind might belong to someone else, they’re reflected in Glassy, Burning. Across his fiction, Evenson presents us with intriguing, often unsettling ideas and then uses the space, sometimes across several pages or just a few, to investigate them, like a self-contained experiment. You find things that go bump in the night, or in your head, but also a playfulness that can be mordantly hilarious. Anything can happen and often does, though rarely how you’d think. Every character turns back towards the door in the dark to see what’s standing there.