From time to time this month, I'll be posting guest posts about short stories, collections, story authors, contests, etc. (solicitation request--if you want to write a guest post, just let me know). This first one is about one of my favorite authors.
Brian Evenson’s “Windeye”
Brian Evenson may be the king of genre bending, slipstream fiction. For years now he has taken the best of genre fiction—the tension and terror or horror, the illusion and mystery of noir—and paired it with the elevated language and insightful focus of literary fiction, to write some of the most compelling stories out there. With his story “Windeye” (collected in Windeye, and originally published in Pen America) he creates one of the most unsettling, disorienting, and touching stories I’ve read in a long time.
Evenson does several things really well in this story—in his fiction in general. The first is to set the stage, to pencil in an outline of the setting, so we can place ourselves “en media res,” Latin for “into the middle of things.” From the first words we get a sense of the house, the land, the backdrop:
“They lived, when he was growing up, in a simple house, an old bungalow with a converted attic and sides covered in cedar shake. In the back, where an oak thrust its branches over the roof, the shake was light brown, almost honey. In the front, where the sun struck it full, it had weathered to a pale gray, like a dirty bone. There, the shingles were brittle, thinned by sun and rain, and if you were careful you could slip your fingers up behind some of them. Or at least his sister could. He was older and his fingers were thicker, so he could not.”
Not only does he hint at what’s to come, with the inclusion of the words “dirty bone” implying death or disease, but also with the idea of thin, brittle shingles, hinting at a vulnerability, and then immediately assigning that to the protagonist’s little sister.
Another aspect of his stories that adds to impact is his air of authenticity. When he talks about the “windeye” he brings up an old story, told to the boy by his grandmother, about windows, and how sometimes a window can be a “windeye.” These games they play as children, the boy and the girl, they often have a sinister edge to them. They played a game with the shingles, his sister working her fingers under them, watching to see if they would crack:
“His sister would turn around and smile, her hand gone to knuckles, and say, ‘I feel something. What am I feeling?’ And then he would ask questions. Is it smooth? he might ask. Does it feel rough? Scaly? Is it cold-blooded or warm-blooded? Does it feel red? Does it feel like its claws are in or out? Can you feel its eye move? He would keep on, watching the expression on her face change as she tried to make words into a living, breathing thing, until it started to feel too real for her and, half giggling, half screaming, she whipped her hand free.”
Later, when they encounter a window that can only be seen from the outside, and not from the inside of their house, “how the wind looked into the house…not a window at all,” we are given a hint of what is to come. But in reality, we have no idea what is about to happen, not all of it, not the scope an—the lengths that Evenson will go to in order to tell the full story. “The problem is the number of windows. There’s one more window on the outside than on the inside.” And indeed, that is part of the problem.
The final trait of an Evenson story that really resonates is his ability to take the story in a direction that is unexpected, and to keep going with it. He not only takes a step into the darkness, but goes deeper and farther than you knew the story could go. In this case, it is the “windeye” of course, the sister the one that is egged on, pushed to look closer, to touch it. When she dissolves into smoke, are we really surprised? Not entirely. But it is when the boy goes to his mother, terrified by what he has seen, explaining what has happened as best he can, talking too fast, trembling and upset, that we get the full weight of what has happened. It is the response of the mother that twists your gut in knots, that makes you break out in a sheen of sweat, when she says, “You don’t have a sister. You never had one. Stop pretending. What’s this really about?”
Perhaps it is because I grew up watching The Twilight Zone, or reading the “real” Grimm Fairy Tales—with all of their baby snatching, devils and wolves, girls without hands—that I always expect the worst, that I even lean into the stories, waiting for that moment, that epiphany and engulfing dreadful knowledge. Maybe I seek out cautionary tales so that I can avoid these horrors in the real world—urban legends, myths and folklore, worst-case scenarios come true. But whatever draws me to the darkness, Brian Evenson is one of the master storytellers, an author who has the lyricism, intellect, and courage to tell unique stories that hold nothing back, that take chances, and wander off into forests that might better be left unexplored.
I’m going to go turn a few lights on now, check the locks on all the doors, maybe even cross myself. But I know one thing I won’t be doing—and that's counting the windows on the outside of my house.
Richard Thomas is the author of three books— Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots and Staring Into the Abyss. His over 75 publications include Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) with Stephen King and Peter Straub, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, and Pear Noir. He is also the editor of two anthologies, both out in 2014: The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.