By Erin Cooper
Fiction best-seller lists are most often dominated by novels. However, short stories have an enduring appeal. Compact as they are, short stories can hit hard and leave a lasting impression. These two new collections prove that shorter fiction can be as vital as longer works, while exploring big ideas in fewer words.
“A Collapse of Horses,” by Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press, February 2016), is not a book to read before bed. These thoughtful tales of horror and violence provoke the reader with their stark imagery and the unsettling questions that are raised.
The collection opens with “Black Bark,” one of its most chilling and memorable pieces. It is a horror with a western flair, introduced by two wounded outlaws riding into the mountains, their destination unclear. When they take shelter in a cave, it appears one of them knows much more than the other. It is within what is unknown that the fear resides.
In the title story, the narrator becomes obsessed with his memory of seeing four horses laying on the ground — were they alive or dead?
This is not a predictable collection. The source of horror in Evenson’s fiction shifts from story to story, ranging from revenge to robots to madness. The setting also varies from a world much like our own to an oppressive dystopia and then to another planet entirely. Evenson’s versatility is such that he switches genres with a light touch.
Another story in the collection, “Dust,” is science fiction, and is set in a claustrophobic mining facility on an alien world. However, it becomes a murder mystery when the miners begin to die off. Evenson is at home with each genre and combines them seamlessly.
Evenson is a polished and accomplished writer with prior short story collections and novels to his name. He has received an O. Henry Award for the story “Two Brothers” and he has been a finalist for the Edgar Award and the World Fantasy Award.
Fans of Franz Kafka and Stephen King alike can find something to enjoy in this collection. Like the best short stories, these stay with you and haunt you. Go ahead, you can try reading them before bed, but who can say what dreams may come?
Amber Sparks’s “The Unfinished World” (Liveright, January 2016) inhabits a lighter universe, but is not without its deep shadows. This is Sparks’s second collection of short fiction. The first, “May We Shed These Human Bodies,” was published in 2012. Like Evenson, Sparks shifts between genres until she no longer seems to be bound by one. Her fantastical tales have a magic to them, but they veer repeatedly into science fiction and don’t hesitate to touch down in slightly altered versions of our own reality.
Sparks chronicles the lives and loves of outsiders. These are tales of people who are discounted or left behind and who have experienced loss. There are werewolves and murderers and rival archaeologists. The opening story is set on a space station, but the protagonist is no astronaut. She is “The Janitor in Space,” a woman who receives none of the glory yet is necessary for the mission’s success.
For fans of fairy tales, “La Belle de Nuit, La Belle du Jour” is an anachronistic retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Six Swans,” in which the evil witch arrives in a jet aircraft.
“Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting” and “The Men and Women Like Him” both represent time travel fiction at its finest, taking a classic speculative theme and making it personal and emotional by exploring what people can change and what they should leave in the past.
“The Cemetery for Lost Faces” is a romance like no other, in which a young taxidermist’s longing for a local gangster comes to a brutal end.
The collection’s weakest point is the eponymous novella. Its unusual characters and concepts are intriguing, but the true story never fully coalesces, as if it becomes lost in its own greater length. The overall impression is that of a work that is as unfinished as the title suggests, but not in the satisfying way that makes a reader yearn for more.
Fortunately, the collection as a whole is strong enough to make up for any flaws and the magic lingers.