Discussed in this essay:
Last Days, Brian Evenson (Peter Straub, introduction). Underland Press. 256pp, $12.95.
Dark Property, Brian Evenson. Thunder’s Mouth Press. 128pp, $14.00.
I think the amazing, unsettling thing about life is that in most places in the world there exist types of human interaction that strike one as unreal or as appalling or as incomprehensible. There is a sort of murmur to the world that consists of the speech of the mad, the tortured, the irrational, the dead and dying, the subversive, the savage.
From one perspective some of my stories are about this murmur, about trying to make it differentiated and significant, particularly in regard to death. Other of my stories are about a refusal to be moved by this murmur, an inability to react significantly in the face of something like death or like life.
Brian Evenson is a writer of dark, violent fictions, cut with the blackest of humor and rendered in stark prose made even more terrible by its simple lucidity. Evenson’s first collection of short stories, Altmann’s Tongue, kicked off a career filled with controversy, as it provoked a strong enough reaction from his colleagues at Brigham Young University to eventually cost him his teaching position and to endanger his standing in the Mormon Church. Undeterred, he continued to write stories in which events of brutality consume and transform his characters, both in short story collections such as The Wavering Knife and Contagion and in novels such as Dark Property, Father of Lies, and The Open Curtain (the last of which was chosen as one of the ten best books of 2006 by Time Out New York and as a finalist for the Edgar Award). Evenson has also received an O. Henry Award, an International Horror Guild Award, and has been chosen as a finalist for the French American Foundation’s Translation Prize for his translation of Claro’s Electric Flesh.
Evenson’s stories and novels reflect and distort some of humanity’s worst aspects, bringing these powers to bear upon characters unable to survive their trials wholly intact. Most strikingly, Evenson writes with what he once called an “ethical blankness.” At first an apparent refusal to pass judgment on his character’s actions or on the consequences that follow, this blankness is in fact a conscious and risky choice that creates a dramatic relationship between his refusal to judge for us and our own moral lenses, a tension that shifts against the reader over the course of each work, as more and more of our own morality is required to rush in and fill the voids that await us.
In Evenson’s most recent novel, Last Days, the author continues to stare into the darkest parts of the human spirit, reporting back in unadorned but razor-sharp prose. The book is comprised of two previously published novellas, the first printed in 2003 as a chapbook titled The Brotherhood of Mutilation, the second published four years later in the third issue of the innovative literary magazine Unsaid, under the title “Last Days.”
The story begins, as so many detective novels have, with a phone call. A man named Kline is contacted by two men who want him to get on a plane and meet them for an unspecified investigation. According to the callers, only Kline will do, because he is just like them—a curious thing to say, considering that Kline has just lost his right hand to the “so-called gentleman with the cleaver,” an event that ended with Kline self-cauterizing his new stump with an electric hotplate before shooting his attacker through the eye. Despite Kline’s initial refusal, he eventually becomes ensnared in the two men’s underground cult, the Brotherhood of Mutilation, for which the first part of the book is named.
The cult’s ambassadors turn out to be Ramse and Gous, low-ranking members of the Brotherhood sent to retrieve Kline for a purpose they themselves only nominally understand. Like Kline, they too have amputated limbs: Gous is missing only a hand, making him a mere initiate, while Ramse is an “eight,” his multiple amputations making him Gous’s superior. The man they’re taking Kline to see is one of the leaders of the cult, a twelve: “Leg, toe, toe, toe, toe, toe, left arm, finger, finger, ear, eye, ear.” It is this twelve—a man named Borchert—who has requested that Kline be brought in to solve a murder inside the Brotherhood, and this investigation inevitably leads Kline deeper and deeper into the myriad deceptions at the Brotherhood’s core. As in most detective novels, each step of the investigation exacts psychological costs from Kline, but in a grizzly twist the detective is made to give physical concessions as well: an increasing number of amputations are required for access to the higher members of the cult, whom Kline must interview to complete his investigation and escape with his life.
By the time Kline first meets Borchert—barely thirty pages in—many of Evenson’s most striking techniques are already on display. Notable among them is the choice to identify each character by a single name—Kline, Bouchert, a whole slew of Pauls—or else by a single distinguishing characteristic, such as “Low Voice” or “Torn-Lip.” Physical descriptions are equally sparse, often written without metaphor or simile. The men who populate this novel are not like anything. They simply are. Evenson describes every action in a similar fashion, paying the same amount of sentence-level attention to a man dying of a gunshot wound (“After a little while, the fellow seemed dead”) as he does to more mundane details (“He ate slowly, moving from potatoes to meat to carrots and back again until it was all gone”). This preciseness of detail, rendered in exactingly flat prose, precludes any authorial judgment from seeping into the descriptions. Likewise, Evenson refuses to explain the moral significance of events, leaving it to the reader to determine the value of each of Kline’s actions.
He accomplishes this in part by writing in a very close third person, never straying far from Kline. The narration shares his confusions, his angers, his temperament. At the same time, the reader rarely gains access to Kline’s inner self, or to his symbolic life. We are kept just outside that door, seeing the world through Kline’s eyes but, crucially, not as Kline sees it. Consider this prosaic passage from the beginning of the novel, after Kline has returned home from his ordeal:
A few days went by. His electric razor broke, emitting only a low hum when he plugged it in. He stopped shaving. The food mostly ran out. I need to get some food, he thought, but instead drank a glass of sour milk.
Now contrast it with another, just a page and a half later, relating the first terrifying revelation of the cultists’ own amputated limbs and giving Kline his initial intimation that he truly is one of them, whether he wants to be or not:
Kline watched as the man grasped one of his gloved hands with the other. He twisted the hand about and levered it downward and the hand came free. Kline felt his stump tingle. The other man, he saw, was doing the same thing. They pulled back their sleeves to show him the bare exposed lumps of flesh in which their forearms terminated.
Finally, there’s this passage, which occurs after Kline’s persistent questioning leads him into confrontation with Borchert, the man who originally summoned him. With one of the book’s most chilling paragraphs Kline amputates his own already damaged forearm, concluding “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” and leading into the titular second part of the novel:
The second time was worse than the first, both because he already knew how it would feel and because of how much thicker an elbow is than a wrist. Still, he managed it, left-handed, despite Borchert’s pistol trained at his head. First, he carefully tied a tourniquet around the upper arm, and then brought the cleaver down hard, chopping all the way through on the first try, and then he thrust the stump against the burner. The stump sizzled and smoked, his vision starting to go. He shook his head and took two steps toward Borchert, and then collapsed.
After that, it became more complicated.
Evenson’s even tone refuses to separate the mundane from the magnificent, the everyday frustrations from the singular terrors to come, thereby putting the burden of determining significance and symbolism directly on the reader. In a recent interview with the writer Matthew Simmons (published at Underland Press’s website), Evenson claimed that, at its best, this restrained tone can “create a tension between the reader and the characters, one in which they start to project their responses into the hole left by the flatness of the response.” In the case of Last Days, that response is initially a mounting sense of doom, of insufficient sacrifice, of ruin that outpaces Kline despite his attempts to stay one step ahead. Even as Kline’s gift for brutality allows him to succeed in the novel’s dark world, it also hastens the destruction of his soul, the part of himself that he identifies as most human. Kline’s descent into the abyss is as much a trap as it is a product of his own actions, but even worse is the way his fall drags the reader in after him, not kicking and screaming but as a willing participant, caught by a tense sympathy created by Kline’s numerous attempts to escape and his role as a protagonist who we wish to see solve the mystery and free himself from the cult.
Evenson creates this sympathy by playing off our assumptions, both about how novels work—the protagonist, however flawed, is generally the character we’re asked to identify with—and also about the detective story. The Brotherhood of Mutilation is a mysterious place, and Kline embodies the reader’s best chance for eventually making sense of it. The reader’s lust for answers generates complicity: if Kline himself must indulge his own darker inclinations in order for us to understand the murder he has been tasked with solving, then we condone his actions as part of our own need to solve the mystery. We do not want him to choose to walk away, to turn the other cheek, to flee when he could fight. We want him to struggle against the forces that oppose him, to do whatever is necessary to provide us with the answers we desire.
Still, when Kline eventually finds that only a willful act of violence will set him free he worries for his hardening soul, wondering how many of the cultists he’ll have to kill before he can escape: “Would he be safe if he killed everyone with twelve amputations or more? Ten? Eight? Could he risk stopping before they were all dead?” Conscious of the psychological cost even before he fires the first bullet, he promises to minimize the killing. In the final calm before the chaos of the novel’s concluding chapters, Kline rationalizes to himself: “If I use only one clip . . . maybe I can still come out of this human.”
In the interview with Simmons, Evenson claimed to be interested in “seeing what happens when we strip the trappings away, in what happens when we take all the props away. . . . I want my characters to confront each other more directly, and more essentially, than generally is the case in life.” By the time the climax of the novel rolls around, this technique feels both cathartic and terrible, continuously charging the reader as both observer and as participant. Once Kline begins to cut through the cult with murderous anger—”This isn’t vengeance,” says one guiding character, but “holy wrath”—we are invited to feel righteous ourselves, to fill in the blanks with our own sanction as Kline attempts to punish those who have threatened him. As Evenson reveals Kline worrying over his soul, he also asks us—voyeurs to these dark and horrifying events—to worry after our own.
In Evenson’s 2002 novel, Dark Property, another man named Kline murders his way across a post-apocalyptic desert, eventually coming into conflict with Eckels, a high priest in a sort of resurrection cult. Despite the differences between the settings and characters—the two protagonists are most certainly different men—both Klines are men of action, given to a dreadful capacity and talent for brutality. But where the Last Days Kline clings to his humanity, his Dark Property counterpart has long since discarded his. When this Kline finally sits down across from Eckels—who Kline has murdered on several occasions, only to see him resurrected each time—the protagonist is defiant in the face of the priest’s attempts to judge him:
[Eckels] dipped the pen, shook a slabber of ink from it and across the desktop. He brought the pen toward the paper, raised it, looked up.
“You inscribe testimony against yourself,” said the man.
“You write, not I,” said Kline.
“I write only what you give me,” said the man. “I impart only your truth.”
“Truth cannot be imparted,” said Kline. “It must be inflicted.”
Both Klines share an ability to go beyond the point where other men would falter. They are each capable of unthinkable brutality, and their essences are revealed not through thoughts or words but through accumulated deeds. These two novels do not offer their protagonists the chance to change through self-realization or gradual learning, instead imposing the harsh external forces necessary to forge each Kline into something new, a person fired in a kiln of his own actions. This kiln also acts on readers. Rather than impose his worldview or even a preferred reading, Evenson simply creates a proving ground on which our own morals can be tried.
In Last Days, Evenson offers Kline as a sort of unblinking mirror in which we see our needs for answers reflected and refracted, warped into something different and darker than we might otherwise have desired. The critical point is not that this break happens, but when and where it occurs.
As the novel enters its final act, Kline’s successive attempts to escape the cult bring with them progressively increasing amounts of violence, leading to his final attack on the cult’s compound first with a pistol and then, crucially, with a cleaver. As Kline returns to the weapon that cost him his hand, and to the act that brought him to the attention of the cult in the first place, he becomes the thing he has fought against since before the events of the book began. Although Kline fails to see it himself, there is no longer any separation between himself and the never-described “gentleman with the cleaver.” In his attempts to escape, Kline has given up his claims to humanity, has become an instrument of holy wrath. Even as he kills to save himself, he feels a pain that is “the most terrible of all . . . each blow he sunk into an arm or a leg or a chest or a head . . . he had felt going into his own body as well.” His personality begins to fragment beyond body and mind, accumulating what he identifies as “a third part of himself, the part that terrified him the most. . . . There will always be three of me from now on, he thought, or a third part of him thought, or a fourth part of him thought.”
It is only in these final chapters of Last Days that we begin to regularly access Kline’s thoughts. No longer are they the processes of the unshakable, self-assured detective from the beginning of the novel, nor of the man who once self-cauterized his own amputated hand before turning on his attacker without pause. Instead, Kline’s mental fragmentation leaves him grasping for reassurance as he tries to answer the final questions in a novel full of nearly unanswerable ones:
How do you know the moment when you cease to be human? . . . Is it the moment where reality, previously a smooth surface one slides one’s way along, begins to come in waves, for a moment altogether too much and then utterly absent? . . . Or it the moment when all these dead begin to talk to you in a dull, rumbling murmur? Or is it the moment when these same voices suddenly fade away and stop talking altogether, leaving you utterly alone?
I am remarkably calm, thought Kline, moving from room to room. I am doing remarkably well, he thought, considering.
As Kline confronts the murmur inside himself—indeed, as he begins to move past it into whatever terrible blankness lies beyond—he brings us closer at last to the threshold within ourselves, to the point at which we may—or may not—begin to balk at his actions. One point of comparison might be a scene in the 2003 French film Irreversible that, like many of the pages in Last Days, depicts an horrifically brutal act none of us would ever wish to actually witness: a young, strikingly gorgeous woman named Alex, played by Monica Bellucci, is anally raped in a pedestrian tunnel for nine minutes, while the entirety of the act is shown in a single take, shot from a low camera angle perhaps ten feet away so that Bellucci’s face is visible for the length of the scene. At first the scene is almost impossibly hard to watch, but—and this is key—there is a point at which we as viewers cannot sustain the level of sickened outrage with which we begin watching. At some point, a feeling much like indifference sets in, soon followed by a new horror: shock at our indifference and an awful feeling of self-implication that it might—if we are being honest with ourselves—lead directly to our acceptance of the vengeful violence that takes up the rest of the film.
It is this effect that Evenson most closely replicates in bringing us closer and closer to Kline, as he allows us to be first repulsed and then adjusted to the novel’s progression of atrocities: First a single amputation, then an escalation to eight, and eventually twelve or more. First a single act of vengeance against the man with the cleaver, then another against Borchert, then even more as Kline takes his revenge to the entirety of the Brotherhood—and even beyond its walls, to those who may or may not have been trying to help him. As our horror falls off in relation to the repetition and seeming normality of these actions—at least within the context of the novel—what are the longer-term effects?
There are only two choices, if this is indeed a choice Evenson has given us. Following behind Kline, close as a guardian angel, we either support his actions, our sympathizing with him paralleling his melding with the “gentleman with the cleaver,” or else we cry off and pull back, finally concerned for what might just be our own humanity. But at what point does this withdrawal happen? If we justify Kline’s first murder, then what about his second, or his third? How do we justify leaving him at this point, when we have already come so far?
What about his tenth? What about when he switches from the gun to the cleaver, or when the murders he commits number in the dozens? What about at the end, when—after the remnants of his pursuers have assured him he’s safe—he returns with the cleaver and a cleansing flame?
And what about when he admits, just before this final act of violence, that “there is always another choice. [He's] just not going to take it”? What then?
To read Last Days mindful of Evenson’s goals—of his wish to “have something meaningful to say about the struggle to be yourself in the face of a group or hostile world” while “[giving] readers just enough to let their imaginations do the work . . . to take a dark inward turn”—is to understand that Evenson is unwilling (or unable) to impart his version of the truth to us. Instead, he uses the twin techniques of terror and horror to inflict upon us a reckoning between the good people we believe ourselves to be and our acceptance of—our desire for—Kline’s murderous, vengeful final actions. If we side with Kline throughout his transformation into this “angel of death,” do we then take on some of the responsibility for what he does? Do we too have to figure out “ways to pretend to be human again?”
It is Evenson’s great restraint that prevents him from giving us an easy answer to this question, or even any answer at all, ensuring that the events depicted in his Last Days will resonate long after we’ve finished reading. Page after page, he forces us to listen to our own black murmur, and to confront what it says about us, about what truths it might one day reveal, and about how much of us—or how little—might be left after the last page is turned, when the lights finally come back on.
Matt Bell lives in Ann Arbor, MI, with his wife, Jessica. He is the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, How the Broken Lead the Blind (Willows Wept Press), and his short fiction is upcoming in Meridian, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, and Keyhole. He is also a Web editor for Hobart, and the host of an eponymous blog.
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