This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Brian Evenson (1966 – ) is an influential American writer of hard to classify dark fiction that often seems surreal or Kafkaesque. He is also a translator of French literature and the Chair of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University, as well as a senior editor of the Conjunctions literary journal published by Bard College. Evenson’s critically acclaimed story collections include The Wavering Knife (2004) and Fugue State (2009). Strange or absurd happenings occur with frequency in his fiction, and nothing could be odder than the events that occur in “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” (2003), later expanded into the novel Last Days (2009). The novella is a modern classic of weird ritual, mixed with noir and horror. And, according to regular contributor Larry Nolen, it may well chart a path toward both terror and salvation.
– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
The torn-lipped man raised his eyebrows and looked at his companion. ‘He’s pretending not to remember,’ he said.
‘Of course you remember,’ said the one with the bass voice. ‘Opportunity knocking? All that?’
‘Ah,’ said Kline. ‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Look at you,’ said Torn-Lip. ‘Do you want to die in bed?’
‘You don’t want to die in bed,’ said Low Voice.
‘We’re here to save you,’ said Torn-Lip.
‘I don’t want to be saved,’ said Kline.
‘He doesn’t want to be saved,’ said Low Voice.
‘Sure he does,’ said Torn-Lip. ‘He just doesn’t know it yet.’
The concept of salvation, of being removed from a condition of perdition through divine – or, in some cases, human – agency, has fascinated humans for centuries. If such a thing as “being saved” is possible, what can be done to generate such a beneficent action? Is it something that can be grasped or even understood? Within those questions lie even greater mysteries: Who possesses the arcane knowledge that could unlock the secrets of salvation? Are there truly prophets that make the inexplicable comprehensible to the masses?
Brian Evenson’s 2003 novella, “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” (which also comprises the first half of his 2009 novel, Last Days), tackles these issues in a way that underscores the tensions between the mysterium fidei that believers in many sects hold to be true and the desire by many within those religious communities to find a surer, more easily grasped path to salvation. More importantly – and ominously – there are those who take the words of prophets and other religious men so literally that we see self-effacement taking place, whether it be total subservience to those who have been divinely inspired or, in the case of historical groups such as the Flagellants, the decision to disfigure themselves and self-inflict pain. This can make outsiders wonder what could move them to inflict such pain and suffering upon themselves and others. Evenson addresses some of those questions in Last Days, in particular the question of why the Brotherhood of Mutilation feels “a calling” to take literally the passage in Matthew 5:29-30 regarding the amputation of body parts for the greater glorification of the spirit. As it is with trying to grasp the mentalité of those whose world-views are so alien to ours, there are times where the narrative falters and the reader is left confronted with the raw, visceral “otherness” that has fallen across adherents to such extreme manifestations of religious faith.
“The Brotherhood of Mutilation” begins with detective Kline, himself a recent victim to a severing of his right hand, being approached by a secretive religious cult that revolves around the passage of Matthew 5:29-30 suggesting that if one’s hand causes one to commit sin, that such a member ought to be severed and cast off in order for one to remain righteous. Instead of telling this in a direct fashion, Evenson uses the first paragraph not just to foreshadow this first contact, but also to go beyond it and hint at the meanings embedded in the story:
It was only later that he realized the reason they had called him, but by then it was too late for the information to do him any good. At the time, all the two men had told him on the telephone was that they’d seen his picture in the paper, read about his infiltration and so-called heroism and how, even when faced with the man with the cleaver – or the “gentleman with the cleaver” as they chose to call him – he hadn’t flinched, hadn’t given a thing away. Was it true, they wanted to know, that he hadn’t flinched? That he had simply watched the man raise the cleaver and bring it down, his hand suddenly becoming a separate, moribund creature?
For the “they” involved, the Brotherhood of Mutilation, it wasn’t as much Kline’s loss of hand that interested them, but rather his unflinching resolve, his self-cauterization of the wound by use of a hotplate, more than his “heroics.” But even more than that, Kline’s description of the event, with his severed hand “suddenly becoming a separate, moribund creature,” sets the tone for the rest of the story. Mutilation is not simply the loss of an integral part, but rather the separation of parts that may run counter to the needs and goals of an immortal soul. This I believe lies at the heart of the narrative, or at least at the heart of “The Brotherhood of Mutilation.”
After contact is made, Kline enters a world in which initiates are referred to by the number of body parts lost, or rather by the number of mutilations. Rank, such as it is, lies within the number of mutilations, not in the degree of those mutilations. Therefore, a person who has lost his genitals and two arms would count only as a Three, while someone who had four fingers on each hand removed would be an Eight and thus have precedence over the Three. In scenes such as this, Evenson displays a rather dark humor, but it also serves to highlight the religious component of this Brotherhood. How is order of rank determined? Which is the Right and True way to proceed in affairs? Is Holiness obtained by the degree to which one has made a sacrifice (in this case, the voluntary mutilations) or by the number of sacrifices offered?
Kline is taken to a Twelve, Borchert, who asks him to investigate the disappearance and likely murder of Aline, the founder of the Brotherhood who has, like Johnny in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, lost as much as could be taken from his body and still live. However, being but a lowly One in the eyes of the cult, Kline finds himself stimied in his investigation of Aline’s disappearance. In the scene quoted below, Kline and Borchert talk about a mysterious tape recording and how the cult’s rules are caught up in it:
‘I need to see them,’ said Kline.
‘Them?’ asked Borchert. ‘My dear Kline, who?’
‘The people on the tape.’
‘Mr. Kline,’ said Borchert. ‘You’re a one. You can hardly expect someone in the double digits –’
‘– I need to see them,’ said Kline.
‘But Mr. Kline –’
‘– something’s wrong with the tape,’ said Kline. ‘With the questions. It doesn’t all mesh.’
Borchert looked at him, coolly. ‘I don’t think that you should let the tape trouble you, Mr. Kline. Why don’t you simply accept it for what it purports to be?’
‘Because it’s not what it is,’ said Kline.
This scene is important not simply because it reveals Borchert’s unwillingness to bend the Brotherhood’s rules for Kline to do his investigation, but that it gives a subtle hint as to what the remainder of the novella deals with, the investigation of Truth in a setting where all such questions regarding it have been caught up in a hierarchical web of dismemberment sacrifice, with power being granted to those who separate themselves from various body parts. As the mystery of Aline’s disappearance unfolds, the setting becomes ever more macabre, with cult members being depicted with severed genitals, guards with only one eye, and at the heart of it, Borchert and his quest to become ever more holy…and his attempt to have Kline ensnarled in this pattern.
“The Brotherhood of Mutilation,” gripping as it is, both as a mystery and as an exploration of faith in a way that accentuates the “otherness” of religious faith and revelation, continues Evenson’s exploration of human desires and violent impulses, first seen in his debut collection, Altmann’s Tongue, in 1994. In stories such as “My Possessions, “ Evenson uses short, sharp sentences to portray in stark terms the quiet and often growing violence of human life:
I looked around me. The street was empty, save for my ruination. I groped my way to a doorframe and sat down, out of sight, out of the rain. I possessed nothing. I had nowhere to go.
There is more than just bleakness in his earlier collections. By the time his fifth collection, The Wavering Knife, came out in 2004, Evenson had begun to deepen his exploration of human relationships with their physical and mental landscapes and with their desire to discover the Sublime, even if that might lead to further madness and grief. There is more explicit symbolism found in these stories, especially in the concluding paragraph to “The Wavering Knife”:
I could feel her all around me like a sheen over the surface of my body, and she having taken charge of me as well. I could see her gathering in my reflection. The whole world was turning and me along with it, and I was falling backwards and onto the floor, so taken with everything I could not move except in response to her missing touch, all language and analysis having fled me, my dress coming off, my lover’s body touching all parts of my body until my body too was wavering and coming asunder and my soul dissolved and expelled to bubble along the surface of my skin and away, until nothing was left of myself nor my body, nothing left of anything at all.
This passage succinctly describes many of the elements that have been central to Evenson’s latter fictions. There is a hint of a simultaneous physical and mystical relationship between the world and the narrator, with something present and yet unknowable existing somewhere between the narrators’ consciousness and their more primal desires. Language falters, symbolic discourse shatters in the face of this strange entity that cannot be discerned or scried. What is left is desperate non-comprehension, itself a form of nothingness whose non-existence serves as a sobering reminder of the limits of understanding. This quest for comprehension fascinates because the goal is ultimately unreachable; we can only reason and rationalize to a point. Beyond this lies the uncanny, the undiscovered country described in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that unsettles us, makes us question and desire to create something that is more readily grasped. Out there, Evenson’s stories seem to indicate, lies madness…or perhaps salvation.