There’s something unfortunate that usually happens when you come across any sort of something in fragments and imagine that it’s perfect and then spend time away from it before circling back to look it full in the face.
Two years ago I read an assortment of Brian Evenson short stories and found them to be almost exactly what I wanted out of short fiction. Then I proceeded to read nothing more by him until buying A Collapse of Horses at a book store in Chicago back in September, and then finally reading the whole thing this month while I should’ve been studying for a math final.
This book was substantially less perfect than I imagined it would be, because of course it was. But still.
The first story in A Collapse of Horses finds two nameless men on horseback, winnowing along a trail, running away from someone (also nameless) toward shelter (that probably doesn’t exist). The man in front, who claims that the shelter that never comes is just up around the next bend, is bleeding from a gunshot wound. He’s bled so much that he should be dead, but he doesn’t seem to realize he should die. The story unfolds only slightly from there, through separation, temporary shelter, improbable reunification, an odd story told over a bonfire, but the whole thing hangs turgidly over the circling mass of the man who won’t die leading us to the shelter that won’t come.
Brian Evenson’s short stories rely, mostly, on a very similar structure. Something happened in the past to set up, in the narrator’s mind, a circling, roiling engine of fear, regret, pain, or anxiety. We are briefly introduced to that, and then rocketed forward in time so we can watch how that engine powers horrifying stasis.
I’m reading Robert Moor’s On Trails right now, and in it he talks about the short circuits that can happen in the path finding instincts of ants and caterpillars. Disrupt the little signals they send to one another and their neatly straight paths from food to home go haywire, and, often, circular. Moor introduces the image of a colony of ants caught in a circular swirl, unable to break the pattern. A heavy rain split the swirl in two and still they were dead locked until they were dead.
In the early part of the 20th century a scientist named Asa Schaeffer found (or claimed, anyway) that blindfolded humans could not, no matter how hard they tried, walk in a straight line for any amount of time. Maybe it’s because one of our legs is always slightly shorter than the other or weaker, or maybe it’s because of some other mystical substrate. However it happens, our instincts were thought to lead us to repeat, repeat, repeat until we wither. Some people theorized that circling had a biological underpinning, that absent outside forces or control, humans would just circle and circle forever.
The last story in A Collapse of Horses begins with two men (named this time) assaulting a fortress, but attacked by the inhabitants with rocks. The inhabitants can only throw the rocks so far, so as long as they stay out of range they’re safe. But night is coming, and with it, even more danger outside the range of the rock throwers. So the first man ventures inward. He’s cracked in the skull by a rock and collapses, either dead or unconscious, it’s unclear. The other man sneaks away, plotting, hoping his friend, if he’s still alive somehow, doesn’t think he’s being abandoned. The other man plans to return after night fall to retrieve his friend, but when he does, he finds his friend’s body gone. And in the darkness, he realizes he’s closer the wall than he thought, an easier target. Rocks fly at him and he’s injured, barely escapes.
Eventually his friend returns under mysterious circumstances (nothing is ever lost or gone in these stories, it’s only floating out of view, waiting to drift back at an unsettling moment) and begins to tell him a dreamlike story, one that structurally rhymes with the first story in the collection, about two men on horseback, the one in the front bleeding but not dying. Evenson doesn’t only send his characters around in circles, he does it to his readers, too. We’re never very far from where we started.
In one story a character tries to drive back to his childhood home–somewhere past Reno, Nevada–but seems to end up caught in an endless stretch of highway that he can’t pass through. In another, a character finds himself improbably reenacting exactly the same circumstances–calcuating how much oxygen remains in a closed system and if it’ll last until he’s rescued–he’d once only barely lived through, all the while required to obsessively repeat a cleaning. In a third, a man finds himself drawn to his undoing in a destructive relationship, able to put words to the fact that he should not be doing what he’s doing, but absolutely unable to stop himself. A fourth has inhuman creatures enacting a circular murderous ritual against humans all because of a linguistic slippage.
It turns out that the human impulse to circle is messier than Schaeffer imagined, but not too far off. Moor cites more recent work that finds that blindfolded humans don’t walk in clean circles, but they don’t typically find their way very far from the start either; people typically manage to travel only about 100 yards a day when lost. Without help, we’ll wander a little and then wind up back where we started, whether we realize it or not.
There’s a moment that happens in nearly every story in A Collapse of Horses where the narrator tries to run down the decision tree of possibilities. Like this moment from the collection’s final story:
He kept walking. He gathered some pinecones from the ground and crushed them between his boot and a flat stone, hoping to get something out of them, but there wasn’t anything inside that struck him as edible. Perhaps he didn’t know what to look for, or perhaps they were the wrong sort of pinecone, or perhaps he was simply too confused and tired to make any real sense of the world at all.
He’s circling around “perhaps,” never making much headway, going hungry. These moments happen over and over in A Collapse of Horses but never manage to lose their twinge of horror, because that sense of looking forward and backward and seeing nothing but sameness, undifferentiated forever, and feeling overwhelmed by the inability to sort any of it, that stays scary forever. There are no monsters coming to eat you. There are no unspeakable forces. Evil is only people with different goals. There is just the world, ambivalent, all around you, slightly wrong and never changing, and no matter how far you walk, you’re no closer to the edge of the forest.