Bookstores, libraries, and in some cases writers themselves have long treated “genre” and “literary” fiction as separate categories that belong on separate shelves. Brian Evenson, whose dark and masterful fiction has been published by both literary and genre presses, is a writer who exposes the limitations of this distinction. Genres are important to the degree that they offer frameworks for writers to participate in and draw strength from. They are, however, only one way of grouping literature. Another way is to think about the effects that a work produces. If there is one thing that unites Evenson’s work in Windeye—his most cohesive and powerful story collection yet—it is his eerie and hard-to-pin-down ability to blur the distinction between the familiar and the extremely strange.
Take, for example, the O. Henry prize–winning title story, in which a man remembers the games he played with his sister around their childhood house. “There was something about the house, the house as a whole, that troubled him. But why? Wasn’t it just like any house?” The brother, looking back on these events as an older man, struggles to remember what it was, exactly, that disturbed him. Then it comes back to him. There happened to be “one more window on the outside than on the inside.” The siblings investigate this impossible window, and when they find it, the sister reaches through and disappears, “as if she had dissolved into smoke and been sucked into the windeye.” The distraught child runs to his mother, only to be told, “But you don’t have a sister.”
One could imagine various arguments about whether this story can be classified as “fantasy” or “magical realism” or “horror.” But these labels don’t capture what actually drives the story. What is compelling is the chilling and heartbreaking feeling produced by this brother struggling to remember a sister who may have not even been real. The sensation might best be described as the uncanny, famously defined by Sigmund Freud as that which is simultaneously familiar and strange, intriguing and repulsive. Freud believed it was perhaps the only feeling more powerful when experienced in art than in life. Many of the stories in Windeye draw on the elements of the uncanny described in Freud’s essay: strange repetitions, uncovered secrets, unknown powers.
Physical harm (amputations, injuries, death) frequently looms over the collection, but Evenson’s eeriest moments occur when reality becomes slightly yet insistently off. In one story, a woman starts to notice “a discrepancy between sound and image” on her television set. Soon, these distorted perceptions spread throughout her world: Even her husband’s speech is out of sync with his lips. In the Lovecraftian story, “The Absent Eye,” a young child loses an eye playing in the forest. He soon learns that his missing eye sees things, “twisting shapes, initially incomprehensible in form and aspect but, as the weeks and months went on, slowly becoming more articulated.” What he begins to notice through this missing eye is that each person has a doppelganger (another phenomenon Freud attributed to the uncanny), attached to their bodies. These creatures stab and claw at their human counterparts, causing discomforts and inducing coughs.
This is already a fantastic premise, but Evenson then twists his horror plot into something even more unexpected—he turns these demented doubles into sympathetic figures. The creature attached to the narrator notices that the narrator can see him with his absent eye. He coaxes the narrator to another room in the hospital where a man is dying. “[The dying man’s] creature was wound around him but losing shape, resembling him less and less. When I leaned closer to the man his creature hissed, more like a double of a snake than that of a man.” The creature is not interested in the dying man, but in the dying creature. “Where does he go? my creature wanted to know. Why does he leave? What becomes of him? To him the man meant nothing, but the disappearance of the creature meant everything, for in it he foresaw the disappearance of himself.” A similar dynamic recurs three stories later, when a wounded soldier named István wakes to find a surgeon has reattached his ear, through which he begins to hear sounds from another world.
Windeye as a whole is full of uncanny repetitions: Lost body parts achieve mystical powers, characters disappear mysteriously, and portals open into other realities. These narrative tics could make a collection feel predictable and stale, but Evenson is always reinventing, always surprising. Although Evenson’s stories involve impossible scenarios and alternative realities, his sentences remain concrete, tactile, and almost calm. It is Evenson’s ability to make you feel the reality of his nightmarish visions, as well as the shaky truths of his characters’ everyday reality. This is what makes his stories such a unique experience, so quietly disturbing, and so unclassifiable.
Lincoln Michel’s writing appears in Tin House, NOON, The Believer, Oxford American, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic.