Brian Evenson’s LAST DAYS: a long review
I can still remember with odd clarity the first time I read the words of Brian Evenson: I ordered ‘The Din of Celestial Birds’ after running into it somewhere on the internet in my earliest explorations of independent lit, and as I can’t remember fully how I found the book, I must more imagine it found me. Almost as vividly as I remember reading each of the series of progressively insidious and truly haunting stories, I equally remember the aura of the book as object, the way I sat it on my bed in weird light and stared at the psychedelic cover full of stories that I still have not found a way to shake, staring at it as if at any moment it might come alive, much in the same way that as a child I stared for hours at the cover to my first dungeon master’s guide, full of incantation and instruction, or the reams of comic books that for years lived in my blood.
From that point forward, I made it policy, or the policy was made of me, to read every word that Brian Evenson gave into the world. That’s not me speaking over-the-top about an author I have come to likely crib more from than any other. That’s me just simply saying that when Brian Evenson speaks, I believe it is time to listen. Nowhere have I found another author so insidious and multivalent in his renderings of both the true terror and multidimensional hysteria of being alive. What’s perhaps most amazing about Brian Evenson’s abilities are not only his mastery of the macabre, the violent, the brutal, the pronged, the sickening, the terrible, the psychotic, and on and on, but the way that among those extreme and often horrifying auras that his words invoke, he is able to deliver it as if it is your brother talking⎯as if it were spoken to you in your own voice. Where other authors handling horror would let the violent act, the brutality, the paranoia do the talking, Evenson is many feet deeper, digging with a spade of language so honed you almost can not feel it digging in until your wet mind is on the floor.
It is in this great fervor of my admiration for the man, for the gift his words have given unfailingly and with great light, that the pleasure of his latest novel, ‘Last Days’ out this month from the newly honed terror-laden Underland Press, adds to the continuum.
‘Last Days’ is on its first face the story of Kline, a man drawn into interaction with a quite unnerving cult⎯a band of men who signify their ranks of leadership and personal value out of the number of limbs or parts of fleshy body they have removed. Kline, having received his own limb mutilated in the line of his detective work, is summoned by the cult and brought among them to investigate a series of strange phenomenon, where he begins to an uncover an even more cryptic string of conspiracy and confusion which continues to escalate both in aura and intensity, until the novel’s hypnotic and truly madcap and brutal end, rendered all along in the way that only quite Brian Evenson can construct⎯mixed both the even, steady hand of old detective novels, Evenson’s sparse post-Lish sentencing, and a sense of humor that beats like a flopping heart left on a table.
Having been one of those who were already obsessed with Evenson’s work early on, I own a copy of the ultra-rare ‘The Brotherhood of Mutilation’ chapbook, which makes up this novel’s first half. Having had to pick my own limb back off of the ground when I heard that he’d extended one of the most fucked stories I’d ever read into a novel length manuscript, I can tell you that the caliber of terror here is immense. Operating almost like a snuff noir shot among weird polished surfaces and in half-light, ‘Last Days’ almost guarantees that you will not stop reading the book once you begin. One of Evenson’s many great talents is the way his sentences, while often deceptive simple, as if cut from some unholy rock, build in a way that only tightens as things progress: the noose tightening, the claws sunk in. His paragraphs, over time, become more and more alive. Terror is only the most potent when it is cerebral terror, when it comes over you in a way you can not explain⎯in this fold Evenson’s ‘Last Days’ holds a billion locks, only some of which are opened, some half opened, some left to gleam. His eye for strange, outcropped details come wrought from the same black mud as Cormac McCarthy’s Appalachian novels crop up pustule after pustule somewhere inside your chest, which by the end will be popped all in one blow.
In example of the denatured bizarre, as early on as page 16, Kline thumbs through a calendar of women arranged by the cult group, who have also been amputated in the men’s image:
With each month, the losses became more obvious and more numerous, March losing a breast, July missing both breasts, a hand, and a forearm. The December girl was little more than a torso, her breasts shaved off, wearing nothing but a thin white cloth banner from one shoulder to the opposite hip, reading ‘Miss Less is More.’
As exhibited therein, it is Evenson’s manner for word choices, the breasts ‘shaved off,’ coupled with the strange jokey ‘cloth banner,’ each phrase compulsive and unshakable in its bare witness, but even more so with the term Evenson chooses to set them down with. The result, as more and more pages turn in these weird corridors of syllables and images, becomes a thing more palpably taut and diseasing than even those nightmares that feel real all the way through, that even when you wake and find yourself in bed, you still can’t quite convince yourself you didn’t truly see.
Part of this comes from his use of pacing and sound to evoke space and objects in a way that seems they too are alive. By rendering forward motion via direct, palpable devices, we are brought to sit inside the body of Kline there with him, rather than just as a spectator in a film. We experience his experience. We are inflicted upon too in his flesh:
The movement sent a wave of pain through the remnants of his shoulder and deep into the abyss of his eye. He closed both eyes and bit down on the side of his mouth and squinted hard. It seemed to help.
When he opened his eyes again, he could taste blood in his mouth. The curtain had slid three inches or so along its track, leaving a slight gap near the wall, just behind his head.
Notice here how each rendering of physicality, which on their surface sound quite common, are in fact directly aimed to bring the reader into the body. The curtain does not slide three inches, it slides “three inches or so,” a guess mark in the head of Kline judging the subtle changes of space around him. A simple uncertainty, sure, but one meant to build rather than bow. Furthermore, the curtain ends its presence near the wall “just behind his head,” in a way that in its compunction makes you feign from it a little, if in your mind. In fact, as this scene continues, I found myself literally turning to look behind me, to verify where I was and who was or was not in the room. The terror is both oblique, disorienting, and at the same time very there, much in the way that sleep terror, often bizarre but at the same time all consuming, can bring a person to great fear inside the confines of their own body.
What’s even more persuasive, then, among the horrors of ‘Last Days,’ are the ideas left in machination. While in many ways ‘Last Days’ contains much more direct action-oriented movement than Evenson’s other work, it is the things left unsaid, the off-kilter and yet testimonially precise speech, that takes control where other narratives would simply stamp forward. In the way that David Lynch uses texture, tone, and color to speak in the place of his creations’ darker corners, Evenson’s prose controls such massive territory in the way that it moves in static between bursts.
In one scene during Kline’s confinement at the amputee camp, he demands that recordings be made of testimonials of those among who he is investigating. What he is given, in place of clear tapes, is an obvious skewing of the source:
He rewound the tape and listened again, turning up the volume as high as it would go, listening to the blank spots of erased tape, hoping to hear hints of whatever had been there before the erasure.
The eerier evocation⎯what is actually being contained and veiled by the tapes’ aural blur⎯is left covered over, half obscured, and thus allows the mind to continue in rumination in the background as the story in its own, other way proceeds. This veiling is indicative of the way Evenson’s narration often seems both speaking to you and speaking secondly inside you at the same time, each saying slightly different things that then interweave in your brain meat and then, in the collision, form the shaking of the blood.
And this, perhaps, is why Evenson, in all of his work, is a true master of the eerie sublime: in that, even as you are aware of the fact that you are reading, that you are being told, as things progress you can’t quite stop your body from having the same response you would have had if these things were indeed actually occurring on your body. What’s worse, they have been spelled out in such careful and uniquely phrased language that they are perhaps even more embedded, more distinctly terrifying and forever there. In this, Brian Evenson is a true revelator, a blacksmith of the nightmare and the tongues, and ‘Last Days’ is his post-noir bloodcurdler, his blackbook objet de taboo.