In the titular story of Brian Evenson’s latest collection, The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, a charismatic cult leader/lifestyle guru instructs his followers that “the quality most needed is a peculiar attentiveness, an ability to tune the soul to a frequency where its vibrations fall slightly below the surface of appearances” (pp. 228-229). Once his flock taps into those secret harmonies of the universe, they’ll pull back the veil and peer into the world underneath, “comprised of the unheard, the unseen” (p. 229). Liminality—that quality of permeability and porousness, of instability and slippage—animates the bulk of Evenson’s twenty-two strange tales, each one overlapping and entangling themselves to form an always-shifting, never-settled topography of a posthuman landscape.
The nature of short story collections—composed of individual pieces that, typically, were written to stand on their own—is such that reviewing them becomes challenging, which is why usually you try to talk about variations on shared themes or overall tone or some underlying throughline. A Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell has all of those things, with some stories even sharing overt connections and characters, but in trying to articulate the totality of Evenson’s text I’m drawn less to how the stories resonate amongst themselves than I am in how it resonates outward toward its influences. The line quoted above—“a peculiar attentiveness”—reads as an echo of H. P. Lovecraft’s own definition of weird fiction, a genre he claimed demanded “a subtle attitude of awed listening.” Evenson and Lovecraft both situate the uncanny in evocations of landscape and environment; the horror, then, derives from an increase in perception: the untapping or revelation of secret knowledge or the Nietzschean stare into the void.
Evenson’s choice of subject—the posthuman wandering the post-post-apocalypse—also puts him in dialogue with fellow new weird writers like Jeff VanderMeer and Caitlin R. Kiernan and Nathan Ballingrud, who are each engaged with contemporary interrogations of seemingly settled subjects. The collection’s back-cover copy promises that Evenson’s tales move “beyond the Anthropocene,” a putative geological designation that is itself slippery but ultimately signals the period of planetary time in which humanity has begun to alter the environment. Capturing the massive sense of disorientation and displacement which characterises our ongoing climate catastrophe is the premier preoccupation of most ecological fiction, but Evenson’s stories linger long afterwards by tethering that unbearable scope and scale to the moments of intimacy and quiet dread that ultimately define his work.
In “Haver,” Evenson explores the evolving relationship between Haver, a psychiatrist, and his patient, Festus. Festus is an artist who only draws, repeatedly and without fail, an exact copy of his studio space, a peculiar obsession that Haver’s curiosity cannot ignore. Like Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” or “The Music of Erich Zann,” Evenson imagines the practice of artistic expression, the act of representation itself, as generating a kind of unearthly relationship between our reality and the imperceptible. Haver ultimately visits the studio and reports back to Festus but not without experiencing a moment of ontological crisis: “he needed to believe the world was a stable, solid place, not a place that could be manipulated by a gnarled, blackened hand grasping a nub of charcoal” (p. 201). “Haver,” as a piece, is one of the collection’s standouts because it so effortlessly encapsulates Evenson’s gift for brevity and dread while also pointing up the project’s overall effort to redraw the limits of humanity's perception. We all have a desire “to believe the world was a stable, solid place,” but fiction concerned with matters of ecology and climate change discloses the fallacy that any definition of the earth or the human was ever stable; in place of boundaries we discover a porosity that opens up vulnerabilities. As Haver discovers, “everything was smeared,” such that notions of material reality and scientific objectivity fail to account for the unreality of the environment itself (p. 200).
Evenson’s environmental subject is never far from view, just beyond the reader and his characters’ imaginations. His strength as a writer comes from rendering subtle human interactions with the same world-ending portent of the Anthropocene, when questions of humanity’s worth and its capacity for cruelty are held in tension alongside our relentless pilfering of the planet. For Evenson, these elements all exist simultaneously, because the answer to the question “what is human?” is world-making and world-ending: the answers to this question ripple out in layers of mattering, and his work here captures those instances and exposes that Lovecraftian undercurrent of awe, dread, and ecstasy.
But the Lovecraft connection is ultimately an overly simple one, and Evenson himself reveals three of his biggest influences in the collection’s acknowledgements: Marguerite Young, Robert Aickman, and Algernon Blackwood. I’m not familiar with Young or Aickman (although now I definitely plan to be), but Blackwood is near and dear to my heart, and his influence on Evenson is clear throughout. Blackwood is one of weird fiction’s granddaddies (his most popular tales being “The Willows” and “The Wendigo”), but his innovation is less his evocation of cosmicism than it is his rendering of a wholly unnatural natural world. Blackwood loved nature and frequently explored and lived amongst it, even while acknowledging its alien-like quality. This marks him as one of genre fiction’s earliest writers to imagine something close to contemporary ecological thought. Evenson carries that dimension forward in several of his tales here. “Elo Havel” is a gruesome tale of nature gone mad that interpenetrates the human and the natural world with violence and notions of vengeance, a familiar theme that is laced through most of Evenson’s stories. In “Palisades,” perhaps my favorite of the bunch, meanwhile, Evenson writes what is almost a sequel to Blackwood’s own “The Man Whom the Trees Loved.”
Blackwood’s original tale imagines a slowly encroaching forest whose presence becomes increasingly malevolent as it assimilates its way into the lives of a married couple. In Evenson’s story, Basz and his uncle are on the run and hole up in an abandoned house on an uninhabited island. “The trees surrounding” the house, they notice, “had been hastily cut down, the stumps left standing to rot, the logs having been used to erect a stockade just beyond the house. Assuming it was a stockade. A palisade, anyway” (p. 39). Basz immediately notices something is strange about the house, including the dirt floor where “someone had gouged what looked like a crude drawing of a face. The face looked somehow familiar” (p. 43). Further exploration reveals a door that opens into a grove of trees, where a similar face appears etched into the bark. Things go downhill from there, but Evenson’s skill at foreshadowing and pacing—the detail about the downed trees, the repetition of familiar features, the flashbacks to the grisly murder that sent the characters on the run in the first place—all build to a remarkable crescendo that finds a strange and hostile natural force exacting a form of cosmic revenge. It’s this idea—of natural revenge against the human—that propels Evenson’s greatest pieces, reorienting the human against a landscape that is itself writhing and capable of action. The human, then, either faces annihilation or is forced to abandon the designation entirely.
In the short piece “The Extrication,” an unnamed scientist explains why humanity, both as a species and as an ontological position, is doomed:
As the world sickens further, as the air grows poisonous, as the oceans die, so too must we shift and change if we care to survive. We must extricate ourselves from humanity and become something other than ourselves. Something that can adapt to the harshness of this new world. We must loosen the strands that differentiate us from other creatures, unravel our coding—loosen it just enough that our bodies are free to become more than what they are. (p. 205)
While writers like VanderMeer might use such a position as a springboard for generative forms of difference, Evenson is a horror writer at heart, so humanity’s annihilation is met less with possibility than it is a damning finality. There’s a mean streak that borders on misanthropy and/or nihilism in a piece like “The Extrication”: it takes a fatalist tone towards humanity, and it’s replicated across the collection. In “Curator,” Evenson gives us the last human survivor on planet Earth, her mission to preserve humanity’s culture and DNA. But in her heart she knows that “the best thing, no matter who or what arrived here … was to make sure it was impossible for humans to come back” (p. 56). In “Nameless Citizen” we follow “a different creature altogether” as they’re repeatedly asked to help save the human race (p. 144). But “things were coming back,” they think to themselves, observing new forms of life repopulating the devastated planet, “another few thousand years and the world might be back to where it was before we appeared. Yet another reason for allowing humans to go extinct” (p. 148). Indeed, these and several of Evenson’s most vivid and visceral tales—“Come Up” and “Hospice,” to name two more—find their power in his ability to fully inhabit detached and disingenuous people and render them recognizable.
Evenson is too canny a writer to moralize directly or suggest prevailing positions, but there is a palpable anger that seethes through The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell—and it is as unsettling as the stories themselves. While I wouldn’t presume to place Evenson on one side or the other, there’s a definite sense of disdain for humanity embedded in his text. And yet there is, dare I say, great pleasure and enjoyment to find within Evenson’s work. In this review I’ve only skimmed the surface of the imaginative possibilities he explores, each story itself a perfect distillation of expert worldbuilding, every line weighted with so much purpose and precision that reading them becomes an act of exploration and discovery. There are ancient civilizations here, otherworldly creatures and alien invasions, characters capable of extraordinary feats, including a prosthetic leg that murders people and a woman who can eat darkness. The variety at play here is impressive, and Evenson’s grasp of pace and plot are infectious, barreling you into the next story even while the last continues to haunt.
Evenson made a splash in 2019 with Song for the Unraveling of the World (though he’s been writing for decades), and this latest collection only further establishes him as one of the premier writers of contemporary fiction. But even more it positions him as an ecological writer invested in questions of environmentalism and climate change. The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell is a white-knuckled scream against humanity’s greed and abuse—only delivered in quiet, careful prose that draws you in, and conjures familiar people and images, before dropping the earth out from under you.