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Brian Evenson on 6 novels that justify making you sick to your stomach

With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.

The reader: We live in an era in which violence is not only a mainstay of the 24-hour news cycle but also in pop culture, as well. Millions blow off steam by watching rugged survivalists blow off zombies’ heads and take breathers from reading headlines recounting terrorists’ brutal conquests of foreign lands to read a fantasy series’ latest entry about White Walkers’ brutal conquest of Westeros. This incessant brutality, all the more amplified by arbitrary television and film censorship guidelines, has understandably prompted a backlash of sorts, arguing against what many see as gratuitous, troubling, and offensive trends in entertainment. It’s easy to get caught up and forget that depictions of violence in fiction, when employed eloquently, can sometimes provide useful means of addressing deeper philosophical and psychological concerns.

Acclaimed horror and dark fiction author Brian Evenson is no stranger to grisly writing or the blowback it can produce. Evenson was raised a devout Mormon, and his first collection, Altmann’s Tongue, proved such a divisive publication that it in part resulted in his resignation from his teaching position at Brigham Young University and later from the LDS Church. To celebrate Evenson’s most recent release this year, A Collapse Of Horses, we spoke with him about books that justify their depictions of depravity.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

The A.V. Club: Let’s start with the big one. This one sticks out with a lot of people and might be the one on this list that most readers are familiar with.

Brian Evenson: For me, Blood Meridian is kind of the test case for something like this, in terms of books that use violence effectively. It’s an amazing book, in that the language is really controlled. There’s a lot going on in terms of content, and historically, it’s drawing on a particular account, so it’s relatively accurate. Also, there are these extreme moments of violence in it that feel very over the top in some way. I think McCarthy is incredibly good at making those moments matter to the context, to use them to build up this hellish landscape and make this book that is really unlike anything else that I know.

AVC: Do you remember the first time you read it?

BE: I kinda read it straight through when I first got it. I was probably a little prepared; someone braced me for it. I think coming to it prepared is a good thing.

AVC: Was that the first McCarthy you’d ever read?

BE: It was. It made me read a bunch of other things. My favorite McCarthy isn’t Blood Meridian; it’s Outer Dark, which deals with some of the same issues, I think. But Blood Meridian is the most extreme of those books.

AVC: Blood Meridian might be the only book that’s ever actually given me nightmares. Did you have a similar response with that or any other title?

BE: For me, there’s a book by Peter Straub called The Throat. Within the first 50 or 60 pages something happens that really frightened me. I read that probably when I was in my late 20s, and it’s been so long since I’ve had a response like that. It really stood out. Blood Meridian, I think because the violence is so coupled with the beauty of the language, I could really admire what he was doing as a writer. That sometimes serves as a sort of protection to the intensity of what’s being depicted. With McCarthy, that’s definitely the case. I’d say the same thing about 2666, the Roberto Bolaño book, which is probably a book I should have included on this list, had I thought of it. He’s just so meticulous in the ways he does that. Even though you have this incredibly intense, deadening section about all these murders in the middle, it didn’t give me nightmares. I came away admiring it, but also a little stunned by it.

A Head Full Of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay

BE: That’s a book that is more in the horror genre. There are these very odd moments in it in which someone is committing violence to their own body or just odd things happening that add up to something. It’s just this general sense of wrongness that the violence plays into. It’s a book that’s also really conscious of all the other books that talk about exorcism. It’s something that you can metafictionally read if you’re aware of things like that.

AVC: Do you think there are definite connections to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist?

BE: It definitely has connections to that, but I think it goes in a little different direction. The movie The Exorcist is one of the few movies that just terrified me growing up. I still haven’t watched it since, because it was so terrifying when I originally saw it.

AVC: Was that because of your religious upbringing?

BE: Yeah, probably that, but I just think the movie in particular and the imagery of it—the head rotating around—has the same kind of intense effect that something like the chest-burster scene in the first Alien did for me. Things that are so unexpected that really horrified me.

AVC: The scene when she walks down the stairs backward still, to this day, affects me deeply.

BE: [Laughs.] If we’re talking about movies, something like The Ring

AVC: The Ring fucked me up.

BE: Those things are so good to go into not knowing anything about them. So, in a way, the Tremblay book kind of stands in for a whole series of books that are messing with exorcism or body horror or possession. I think the reason I thought of it was that it alluded to so many of those books and movies. You experience Paul’s book, and you are reminded of so many other things that creeped you out.

The Marbled Swarm, Dennis Cooper

BE: There is almost an old-school, elegant violence in it. [Laughs.] I think, again, what he does that McCarthy does as well is the care that he takes with the language and the intensity of what’s going on. The situation coupled with the gnarled-ness of his language ends up doing something unique and different. I could see that without the care and attention he takes with the language, and how he builds the situation, it could easily be seen as gratuitous.

AVC: Do you think it’s possible to get away with violence in a blunt manner, or nowadays is it something that has to be cared for?

BE: I do think there are moments that a deliberate bluntness can work for you, but I think it’s got to be a thoughtful bluntness, if that makes any sense. [Laughs.] I would argue that 2666, that Bolaño book, works because it is so flat and blunt and unadorned. But he’s very deliberately doing that, as opposed to some writers who do it because they can’t do it better or they haven’t thought about it or they aren’t taking advantage of how it is being expressed. With my first book, Altmann’s Tongue, there was a lot of discussion about the violence in it, and with Last Days later. One thing that is interesting about violence in literature is that readers are allowed to live through an experience with a kind of protection built in. You’re never going die by reading. [Laughs.] But at the same time there is an intensity to it and a certain kind of trauma associated with reading certain things.

AVC: After the initial response to Altmann’s Tongue, were you cautious about how you used violence in future writing, or was it something you expected to happen in the first place?

BE: You know, I didn’t expect it to happen in the first place, because I was so focused on the language that I’d almost forgotten how difficult some of those stories were. If you’re reading over it 30 or 40 times and thinking about the commas and all these little details, you’re seeing the trees but not seeing the forest. So it did surprise me a little bit, but then I remembered when I was writing it; there were these moments where it was very difficult and intense for me. Because there was such a response to Altmann’s Tongue, it really made me think that people cared about what I did and were paying attention to it and that I should really think very strongly about why I was doing what I was doing.

AVC: What drew you to that in the first place? What makes you tackle these visceral and violent themes?

BE: I think a lot of it had to do with the culture I was raised in. Growing up Mormon, there was this thing where we were discouraged from watching R-rated movies. It was pretty much written, but I had these friends who felt that it was okay to watch an R-rated movie as long as there was quote-unquote just violence, as opposed to sex scenes. This notion of violence being kind of okay was something that I was always really interested in and curious about. I think Altmann’s Tongue in particular was a book I wrote to kind of recuperate violence and to make it threatening again and more intense again. It’s weird to think about. [Laughs.] Because sex is something we all have a connection to, and violence, hopefully, we don’t.

AVC: Is this something you took into consideration with your latest release, A Collapse Of Horses?

BE: I think I’m concerned with some other things, but that’s something I’ll always have some interest in. My work has that: There’s a certain element of transgression; there’s a certain element of trying to have readers respond to it in a certain way. I really like the notion of something sticking with me after I finish it, when the story keeps on working in your head after you’ve finished reading it. I think violence and the interest in that has a connection.

Audition, Ryu Murakami

AVC: We seem to keep coming back to film, probably because it can be the most visceral, visual experience.

BE: There’s a lot of similarities between the book and the film. I came to the film first, definitely. That was kind of how I approached it. I find it really remarkable in a lot of ways, just because it seems so sweet at the beginning and then just gets so strange. Ryu Murakami’s work in general seems to be kind of transgressive, but there’s an interesting thing about the book itself where the prose feels almost lyrical and elegiac and then every once and a while gets very dark. And, of course, the story as a whole goes to a very, very dark place.

AVC: Do you think Asian literary horror represents violence in a different way than Western or American horror fiction?

BE: I’ve seen a lot of Asian horror movies, but I do think there is a little more of a tendency tothere’s more of an interest in transgression. I’m trying to think, even in things like Haruki Murakami’s work, there are these highly sexualized moments that you just don’t find in American work. But in terms of the stuff of, like, the direction that Audition goes, there’s probably other stuff out there. I just don’t know it that well.

AVC: It’s interesting to talk about that separation of violence and sexuality, because a lot of times in Asian horrorAudition being a textbook exampleviolence and sexuality blend in a way that makes it very hard to discern one from the other.

BE: Exactly. I think that’s interesting, and I do think it’s partly to do with a connection to the manga tradition that allows for that.

The Petals Of Your Eyes, Aimee Parkinson

AVC: This might be the least known on the list, and it’s a stranger tale in the way it’s executed. “Surreal” is used a lot, but it does seem to be a very surreal book.

BE: I really was trying to think of what people could see as different takes on violence and as a way of thinking that ethical violence can be taken in very different ways. That’s a book that almost has a more Georges Bataille sort of thing, where it’s somewhat challenging. It’s about basically this troupe of child actors who are in slavery that are performing with puppets made from the bones of other child actors. It’s a very surreal story, but I think something at the heart of it thinking of these children in slavery really does ring true.

AVC: What do you think of using surreal imagery or unrealistic situations to tackle real-world problems like slavery and child abuse?

BE: One thing that approach allows is for you to both appreciate the situation and to feel implicated in it in some regard. In a case like that, the lyrical nature of what she’s doing, the beauty of her prose, ends up making you feel implicated in the situation in a way that, at least to me, makes me feel a little uncomfortable. That in a sense seems like a valid and interesting ethical response. That’s very different than something like Bolaño, where he just goes through murder after murder in the central part of 2666. That almost makes you feel more exhausted than it does implicated.

AVC: There’s a guilt in enjoying the language. You’re enjoying the beauty, and then you realize what that beauty is made out of.

BE: That coupling of lyrical prose with really difficult content can really promote a really complicated response in the reader. That’s something I do a lot in my own work, as well. The idea that you’re enjoying something and are repulsed by it at the same time is really intriguing.

The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks

AVC: This might be the most straightforward novel on the list, at least in terms of plotting and narration. It’s cinematic in a way and very funny at times, so there’s that intersection of violence and humor.

BE: I think that book has that, but it also has a really interesting shift that goes on near the end. I would say books like that or Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy do this thing of combining the violence with this interesting sense of humor that works in some ways. There’s other books that do that, as well. John Burnside’s books do that a little, but now I think it’s more dark than humorous. On the other side there’s Magnus Mills, a English writer, whose The Restraint Of Beasts is about these fence makers who keep on accidentally killing people. I think that comedy can give a kind of release sometimes from the violence. It releases the pressure valve, but often when it’s done, it allows only a momentary release to let things get more intense later on.

I chose The Wasp Factory largely because it satisfies certain sorts of concerns that the others didn’t. The violence in it is not always directed [physically] human to human. In The Wasp Factory, there’s a lot of tension with the father, and there is this sense of emotional violence that overrides any kind of physical violence, even though there is a lot of that as well. I think that one of the difficulties with that kind of violence is that we all can relate to it in some form or another. The difficulty is when you experience it with a character, you potentially re-experience things you’ve felt psychologically. My sense of that is that it ends up being very useful to human beings, because it allows them to sort out their own pasts and their own difficulties. The objection to it would be that you have to relive something you’ve gone through. [Laughs.] And I understand that. I can be sympathetic to that, but at the same time one of the great things about literature is that it can be difficult. It has a kind of difficulty that is controlled in a different way than the difficulties we actually have to live through. That kind of second-order experience of reading a book is something that can potentially be very helpful to us and healing to us, even with the most difficult texts.