The first story in Brian Evenson’s collection Song for the Unraveling of the World is less than two pages long. That page and a half, though, is a good litmus test. If you don’t like it, you can confidently move onto some other short story collection. But if you find yourself intrigued and uneased, there’s plenty more of that waiting for you.
Evenson’s stories range from the strange to the macabre to the merely disquieting, and run the gamut from the more literary to full-on genre fiction like sci-fi and horror. Consider “Shirts and Skins,” in which a man goes on a terrible first date to a terrible art show with a terrible woman who will simply not take “no” for an answer (and the man, now planning a wedding he doesn’t want, is powerless to make her see reason). Contrast that with “Lord of the Vats,” in which a spaceship passenger is abruptly awakened from his suspended animation by some unseen power that has damaged the ship and killed everyone else on it, or “The Glistening World,” in which a woman sees a faceless man in all of the bars she goes to one night but that no one else seems to notice—and who, when she finally confronts him, she feels compelled to follow.
Each story feels disparate enough that this does feel like a bunch of stories collected from Evenson’s publishing, as is the case, rather than sharing a series of tales surrounding similar themes. The oddness present throughout each, though, connects them, as does Evenson’s clear and consistent narrative voice. His prose is clear and matter-of-fact, even when dealing with, say, a post-apocalyptic reality in which survivors may turn into strange and eerie creatures (“The Tower”). There’s also just enough humor to make you feel bad about laughing when the material surrounding it is so unnerving. As an example, from “Sisters,” about two young entities who find out about the human custom of Halloween and decide they want to celebrate:
“About two weeks in, Millie gathered the family together to report what she had learned. She had been, as it turned out, to an instructional center, and had benefited, from her vantage in the coat closet, from a series of short sermons related to the ‘true’ nature of ‘Halloween.’ These included the carving of pumpkins into the shapes of those rejected by both heaven and hell, the donning of costumes (by which she meant a sort of substitute skin affixed over the real skin, though in this locale they used an artificial rather than, as we were prone to do, an actual skin), and the ‘doorstep challenge.’ This last one, she said, was accompanied by slapping the face of the respondent with a glove, and then saying something such as: ‘Shall you accept a trick from my hand, or shall you satisfy the aggression of that same hand by soothing it with a treat?’
‘That was how it was phrased?’ asked Mother.
Millie shrugged. ‘No, not exactly. I’m improving it.’
‘And the glove slap?’
‘Also an improvement,’ she admitted.”
Throughout, the stories reminded me of Ray Bradbury shorts (especially, The October Country and The Martian Chronicles) and of the Bruce Coville-edited series of monster-themed anthologies from the 90s (Bruce Coville’s Book of Aliens, Bruce Coville’s Book of Monsters, Bruce Coville’s Book of Nightmares—you get the idea.) that no one else seems to remember so I guess it was just my bookmobile that had them. Those vibes are certainly not unwelcome ones, though.
Often, it takes me a while to read story collections; the lack of a narrative thread makes me feel as though I can stop and start at any time and I usually end up doing more of the former than the latter. Song for the Unraveling of the World, on the other hand, kept me eagerly reading with its bite-size strangeness.