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The Wavering Knife

Brian Evenson
Fiction Collective Two. 210p. $13.95.
(March 2004)
ISBN: 1573661139


In a review of his The Cat's Pajamas & Other Stories, I mentioned James Morrow as an accomplished satirist who combines the dark with the droll. Brian Evenson, although far more brutal than Morrow, also manages to combine horror with humor. Unlike Morrow, he is no moralist. Evenson's stories are mirrors in which humanity sees its hideous self reflected without apparent comment or judgment. He tells story after story in an immaculate, logical voice that convinces us that violence is not an aberration and that savagery is not momentary insanity. We come away believing such things are not only essential to the human race, but serve to define it. Evenson speaks the unspeakable in a matter-of-fact manner that makes the horror all the more disturbing.

In "The Ex-Father" a girl comes home from school with her younger sister and, in the middle of an after school snack, discovers the cat is leaving bloody footprints. She ascertains the cat's paws are not, as she had feared, injured then follows the tracks "back to her mother's bedroom to find her mother inside, lying on the floor dead after trying to saw off her own head." The girls' father reenters their lives and moves back into the house to care for his daughters, but he remains a "ghost." The elder daughter feels she must "snap the ex-father back into being a father again." She devises and executes an appalling plan that may well "snap" her father into...some state.

book cover Many of the stories are grounded in modern-day religiosity. Some good Christian boys have a few beers in "Barcode Jesus" and decide it is time to bring the local Wal-Mart to the Lord. ("It's not just any Wal-Mart...It's a Supra-Wal-Mart. Open 24/7. They got a grocery store and a video rental and a hair salon and even a bank-not just a cash machine, but a whole fuck-all bank....They got a tire center and you can get hunting licenses from squirrels to deer and there's an electronics center and a shitload of toads and frilly hats and God knows what else.") That the conversion in "Barcode Jesus" eventually involves a human bomb is not shocking, but inevitable. One's acceptance of this inevitability is, of course, shocking.

A sanctimonious Mormon concludes that "liberals have seized the reins of the Church, leading the horses to run full bore away from God" in "The Prophets." He feels a return to the earlier Prophets of the Latter-Day Saints is the cure and sets about to resurrect "the last true prophet," Ezra Taft Benson, from the dead. Another group of pious men attempt male bonding and confront cross-dressing in a hilarious "Promisekeepers" that turns dark only at the end.

Similarly, "The Gravediggers" modernizes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with gruesome wit that turns absolutely chilling at the conclusion. In "The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette," the narrator tries to kill his lover and afterwards "a measure of uncertainty slipped into their relationship." "White Square" is something of a mystery that will remind many readers of Kafka, but is deserving of its own recognition on the merits of its prose alone. "Moran's Mexico" toys with writers and academia, complete with footnotes.

All eighteen stories in The Wavering Knife are worth reading. And, although Evenson has long garnered academic and literary acclaim, horror and fantasy readers or critics have never particularly noted him. He is far past due our recognition, praise, and reading as he is definitely "one of ours." (from Cemetery Dance #52)