Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson. (Coffee House Press)
Okay, okay, okay, I know how this is going to sound, but hear me out … Kafka in space.
Yeah, I get it. It’s one of the shitty little loglines that normally don’t mean anything, but people like me say them to pique your interest to get you to buy books.
Here’s the thing: this time it’s true. There is a story about halfway through Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World where I paused and thought to myself, This shit is like Kafka in space. This collection of stories breed paranoia in the characters (and, by proxy, the reader) and evoke strong feelings of suffocation and claustrophobia. Dare I say it’s a fun read? Like, this is how all horror should be written and enjoyed.
With a lot of horror writing, the author is trying to build the frightful elements directly into our world because it presents a layer of realism upon something that is, at its core, unrealistic. Brian Evenson goes the other way, giving us out-of-this-world premises and situations that don’t feel like a part of our day-to-day, but writes in such a matter-of-fact tone that ground the stories.
The fantastical elements found in Song for the Unraveling of the World are scary, not because I see parts of myself in them, but because I see them as tomorrow’s reality. They’re not happening right now, which would allow me to set the book down without another thought. No, these are stories that feel inevitable. I can put this book down, but the stories stay with you because they’ve laid the grounding for what’s about to come, and that makes this book fucking terrifying.
This is a bleak collection of stories. Any horror fan—in any of its subgenres—should pick it up immediately. Evenson provides us with a master class in subtlety and how understating the horror often creates a much scarier premise.
The supernatural elements in this book simply happen. There are no reasons—or ones that aren’t bothered to be explained—but that’s why it’s so effective. While I read through the book, I noticed one element that kept popping up, splitting my mind into what it meant. Basically, characters are punished (by the universe) for having good fortune. When life seems to be going right for them, Evenson brings down these horrible scenarios upon the characters. It’s not like they necessarily cause the events or set anything larger than themselves into motion, they are merely in the wrong place at the wrong time—because, apparently, life was going well for them. I can think of two separate effects this could potentially have on me:
- It’s a good method to induce anxiety.
- What about these characters are we not seeing?
Let’s examine each.
- This is the kind of mentality that drove me to a therapist as a child. Good things can’t just happen. You must suffer for good things to happen to you. We see this in multiple stories throughout Song for the Unraveling of the World. Horrible things happen to good people because the world isn’t allowed to be a good place. Shit is random and it doesn’t matter how you live your life—good, bad, indifferent; untimely demises and shocking outcomes can (and most definitely will) come your way. Essentially, life means you suffer without reprieve.
That’s one way to look at it.
- Another way is from a point of Karmic justice. These characters must have done something deserving to call on such terrible ends, but their shortcomings weren’t pertinent to the story at hand, so we’re left to fill in the blanks. Could that guy who finally found happiness have molested a child in his youth? Therefore, setting into motion the inevitable tear in the interdimensional wall that let a monster switch places with him? Leaving him to live out a solitary life in the shadow world? I mean, a horrible end nonetheless, but at least the pederast deserved it. None of that is in the book (well, except the monster thing from the shadow world), but I could certainly invent this backstory to mitigate the random acts of horror.
Really, this book is a litmus test for how one looks at the world. Is it a cold and unforgiving hellscape? Or is there a cosmic justice keeping a balance between good and evil? Are we on our own? Or is there a god looking over us?
This is a bleak collection of stories. Any horror fan—in any of its subgenres—should pick it up immediately. Evenson provides us with a master class in subtlety and how understating the horror often creates a much scarier premise. Good luck trying to unlock the mysteries in Song for the Unraveling of the World, because the secret is there are no mysteries to be found. The world is as it is and nothing more.