On a day "when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens," to quote Poe, I met the warm, genial Brian Evenson in his office at Brown University, where he is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing, and where a Poe bobble-head sits atop a cabinet near his desk, and the two of us meandered over to one of his favorite local restaurants, a Middle-Eastern place with outside seating, to grab a bite to eat. While ensconced in the iron chairs, eating our plates of shawarma and falafel, we discussed emaciated Japanese women with long black hair, twin gynecologists, the banality of evil and fatherhood, among other strange things not dreamt of in our philosophy.
All art courtesy of Andrew Bulger.
GIGANTIC: What would you say is the most disturbing horror movie you've ever seen?
BRIAN: The most disturbing one I've ever seen? I think a lot of the ones that are intensely violent don't disturb me, necessarily. The ones that I find really scary are almost exclusively Japanese. I don't know what it is… It's just the relationship in the movies of people to things like ghosts is really different. The ghosts are seen as an integral part of life and for some reason I find that really terrifying. So, I think there's a whole range of stuff: the Japanese version of The Grudge (Ju-On) is pretty frightening and the same goes for The Eye—I think that's got its moments—and some of Takashi Miike's movies. I think in a way that he's so weird that oftentimes it's not disturbing.
GIGANTIC: Kind of cartoonish.
BRIAN: Yeah, cartoonish and absurd. It's hard not to laugh, but there are also some moments when it gets really weird. Movies that are mostly atmospheric are the ones that really work the best for me.
GIGANTIC: Yeah, I agree with you on that. But in terms of Takashi Miike, we'd talked a little bit about Audition.
BRIAN: Yeah, I love that movie.
GIGANTIC: Me too. Apparently, it's his attempt to make a serious movie, or so I was told, sort of like a challenge. He'd been making these pulpy, cartoonish gorefests and got challenged to make an actual serious movie and the result was certainly interesting.
BRIAN: Yeah, I really like that movie, and I think the reason I like it is because it's basically a sentimental movie that goes really strange and really wrong and that combination was not something I'd ever seen before. There are moments in the movie that are just terrifying: that part with the sack, and the dream, or whatever it is, that the main character experiences in the hotel room is really amazing, and then just the sound she makes when she's taking the main character apart —
BRIAN: [laughs] —yeah, whatever it is. And I suppose it's different from his other work, but I can't really imagine any other director but him making it.
GIGANTIC: You really do feel for the main character, which is sort of rare in horror films. Usually they're sort of just fodder.
BRIAN: Yeah, you feel for him, and you also know it's going to go hideously wrong for him very early on.
GIGANTIC: Yes, definitely. Although personally I always wonder about Japanese horror, why it's so successful with American audiences and why we find it so frightening. I don't know, do you have any ideas about this?
BRIAN: I think it's partly that we have certain conventions for how a horror movie works and how a ghost story works that we just kind of accept and that makes them feel comfortable and safe. The same goes for Japanese horror, except that they're different conventions. It's that they don't always move in ways we expect. The kind of traditional thing that you encounter in your average American horror-ghost story is that something is wrong and needs to be solved so the ghost can be put to rest and then everything will be okay. And then in all the Japanese ones, it's like, you can do that, but then the ghost is just pissed-off—it doesn't matter what you fix, it's just going to keep on doing things. I like that there's a kind of hopelessness to it in some ways. It can't be resolved in the same way that the American ones can. So, next to that, I think that a lot of American ghost-movies seem like they're playing a game, or out for a different kind of stake. And then the other thing, I think, is that you just get the sense that in Japanese society in general there's a belief in ghosts and demons that, although maybe not actually present, is certainly present in terms of what's being done in fiction and film. There's this moment in Ju-On when someone explains to the police officer that they think it's a vengeful spirit who's been doing the killing, and whereas in an American movie the detective would say, no, that's impossible, these things don't happen, the Japanese detective is just, like, Ah, I see. It's a perfect explanation for him and makes everything make sense. So I think it might be that. And that's always why those movies, when they're remade for Americans, don't work nearly as well. Because they're translating the context and the movies don't achieve the same effect, and aren't nearly as scary.
GIGANTIC: I definitely see what you're saying about subverting the narrative conventions, but one thing I've always wondered about the American versions is that the foreignness of the culture is always emphasized, and there's a slightly xenophobic aspect. It's always a bunch of Americans stuck in Japan with emaciated Japanese women. There's just something odd about it.
BRIAN: Yeah, there is. And it's this simultaneous attempt to capture the culture and the setting, but to also have something familiar that American audiences can hold on to. I think that part of the appeal is feeling defamiliarized enough that you really don't know what's going to happen for sure, that you really can't predict the sequence of the way that things work. Even something like Ring works in a similar way. You know, it's a tricky concept in terms of, how does one translate a film from one culture to another? And you can think about it in terms of other films, like, for instance, Funny Games, if you've seen the American one versus the German one.
GIGANTIC: Made by the same director, right?
BRIAN: Same director (Michael Haneke), pretty much shot for shot the same. And the American one works really well except for the fact that the two main actors (Nicole Kidman and Tim Roth) are people that Americans know and are familiar with and it feels like a movie in a way that the German one doesn't. And although it may've been the same with that version if you knew the German actors, the first time I saw it, what worked so well for me was that it's these people who you don't know, and you don't know where it's going to go, and it's terrifying. I find the Japanese movies terrifying, and the remakes pretty much unsuccessful.
GIGANTIC: Just to jump off of Funny Games, which strikes me as a movie about—and I'm sure you're sick of hearing this term—the banality of evil, something one often encounters in your writing. And I wonder, do you think that's a particularly good example of that trope at work on screen, or can you think of other cinematic examples?
BRIAN: What I think is so interesting about Funny Games is this kind of repetition that goes on. You have the sense that they've done this in the house before, that they're going to do it in this house, and then they're going on to the next house.
GIGANTIC: I thought maybe they were just doing it because they're bored.
BRIAN: Yeah, I think that's part of it, that they're bored. There is that moment at the end when they're in the boat and they're talking about videos and video games, right? There's a kind of defamiliarization of violence that's going on there. And I do think that's something that I'm interested in—both thinking about violence as something that you're defamiliarized from and then thinking, "Well, what does it take to make me feel intensely in relation to violence again?" A lot of my work is trying to think about violence as something that's been captured by the culture and made safe in some way, and trying to make it not safe again. And that, I think, is probably the difference—to go back to the American remakes of Japanese horror movies—that there's more safety in one, and less in the other. Though maybe if I was Japanese, I wouldn't feel that way. But I think that Haneke, especially, is really amazing in terms of how he deals with these notions of the banality and defamiliarization of violence.
GIGANTIC: Caché is a good example.
BRIAN: Caché is a great example. The moment in Caché when the man cuts his own throat is so startling, and really unlike anything I've ever seen on screen before. It comes out of nowhere. You're kind of put in this position where you, along with the main character, have no idea what to expect.
GIGANTIC: His movies are horror movies of a different stripe, maybe.
BRIAN: No, I think that's definitely true in terms of the kind of anxiety those movies create. In Funny Games, even the American version, there's this remarkable sense of feeling trapped as you're watching it, and then there's this sense of him implicating you as Michael Pitt's character starts to address you.
GIGANTIC: Sort of making you complicit.
BRIAN: Yeah, or that strange moment when the film gets rewound and it goes another way. He raises a lot of questions of complicity, and it's a very, I think, sadomasochistic film structure in lots of ways.
GIGANTIC: Is that something you ever try to elicit? Complicity in the reader?
BRIAN: Yeah, I do try to elicit a certain amount of complicity in the reader, to try to make the reader feel somewhat responsible for what's going on, or to have to respond to it in some way or another. I think it depends on the book or the text, but a lot of my writing is trying to convey a phenomenological experience, by which I mean I'm trying to make the reader feel and sense what it's like to be in a certain situation, so often there's a kind of palpability to the events in my stories that makes it hard for a reader not to feel implicated, involved.
GIGANTIC: One that comes to mind is "The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette" (from The Wavering Knife), which I found, while re-reading on the train up from Boston, was cinematic in many ways. And that's one thing that strikes me about your work, that it's a combination of being heavily interior, and heavily cinematic and physical.
BRIAN: I think that's true. I'm very interested in filmic techniques. That's a big part of it for me: trying to give a sense of minor details as to what the interior life of the main character is like. In that story, though, which is pretty stripped down, Kohke reveals what he's thinking about sometimes, or there are very small hints of it, and that combines with the specifics of what the apartment's like, and moving through the apartment, and the various kind of things that he tries to do with his lover—the thing with the tape, all those sorts of details…
GIGANTIC: On the level of using distance as a way to examine something, there's a handful of horror directors who try to make a very direct connection between something like sex and violence in horror films themselves. Like in slasher films from the 80's, and certainly in the sort of torture porn stuff that we have today.
BRIAN: Yeah, not a huge fan of the Saw movies.
GIGANTIC: [laughs] No way. And maybe this is sort of a leading question, but what do you make of that correlation? Do you think that it's something better examined implicitly, because sometimes it can be self-consciously examined, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't?
BRIAN: I definitely tend to gravitate more towards stuff that does it implicitly, and that's more psychological. Something like the Saw movies—it doesn't seem like it's been thought through in a way. I mean, some of the scenes in the Saw movies are very artistically arranged and beautifully shot, but once you get past that you have a kind of slow story that's not that interesting…
GIGANTIC: Pretty facile.
BRIAN: Right. It's like watching Cube. How many times can you watch Cube?
GIGANTIC: Which is a good one.
BRIAN: Right. It was done well once. You don't want to have Cube II.
GIGANTIC: Which I think there was.
BRIAN: [laughs] Like I said, I tend to gravitate towards stuff that's going to surprise me in some way, and I'm not all that interested in the torture porn stuff because I don't think it's all that surprising. There are directors who do things that are ultra-violent that I like—like Takashi Miike, when he does it in the right way—but it's also that he has a different sense of purpose. There's something else going on.
GIGANTIC: Or someone like David Cronenberg. His work strikes me as similar to yours, on some level.
BRIAN: I think he does have a sense of purpose involved, which makes it different from something like the Saw movies. Cronenberg does ultimately care a lot about story.
GIGANTIC: And he certainly forces you to deal with what you're watching, rather than just sort of passively experiencing it. Especially in A History of Violence.
BRIAN: Yeah, I saw A History of Violence with a bunch of people who didn't like it, but I actually liked it quite a bit. It's a very simple story, but very nicely and intensely done.
GIGANTIC: And funny, in many ways—[laughs] if you go in for that kind of thing.
BRIAN: No, no, I think that's right. It's a basic noir premise, the way it's set up: you have this man with a past that he's run from who has to then go back and confront it. There's a fair amount of variation within Cronenberg's work. Some of it's very literary, some of it's not as literary, but it's all pretty interesting, I think.
GIGANTIC: Dead Ringers being a more literary example.
BRIAN: Yeah, it's hard not to like a movie about twin gynecologists. Weird sense of humor in that movie, as well.
GIGANTIC: So, just sort of a fun question: has any of your work ever been optioned for film?
BRIAN: Yeah, there have been short films made of about four or five stories, and then a bunch of stuff has been optioned. Last Days has been optioned. A Danish filmmaker has written a screenplay that's very good, I think, and is trying to sell that right now. But no big films made yet.
GIGANTIC: Which stories?
BRIAN: "The Munich Window" (from Altmann's Tongue) was made into a short film for a student project. A lot of stuff from Altmann's Tongue has been optioned. There are two versions of "Hebe Kills Jarry." "Altmann's Tongue" itself was made into a short film, about three minutes long—a British filmmaker did that. You can find it on the internet. "The Father, Unblinking" was made into a short film about twenty minutes long that did have some festival play and won a few of awards. The idea of that film's director was that he would start with that and build it up into a kind of Western trilogy based on other pieces of mine.
GIGANTIC: Well, if you were choose one of your books to be adapted, do you have any idea which one it would be?
BRIAN: Last Days would be a good one because it's very cinematic, but it's also very intense and weird, so I don't know, exactly. I've been talking to a guy who's interested in doing The Open Curtain, and I'd love to see that done.
GIGANTIC: Which could be very interestingly done, I think.
BRIAN: Yeah, a lot would depend on how you approach it. So, I don't know if I have a favorite to be filmed, but Last Days could be good. But I was thinking, when we were talking a minute ago about sex and violence, about whether there are directors who I really like who move in that vein, and the one that comes to mind is Gaspar Noé—do you know him? He did a movie called Irreversible.
GIGANTIC: Oh yeah, sure, I've seen it.
BRIAN: It runs backward.
GIGANTIC: I actually walked out.
BRIAN: [laughs] Did you really? Well, you feel like you're going through a kind of trauma as you go through his films, but I think that if you can make it through that process, he's a really interesting filmmaker. I don't know if I would ever recommend him to anyone, but I do think he's got something going on—he's taking an intense relationship with violence and pushing it in other directions.
GIGANTIC: It would be hard for me, but maybe I'll give it another try.
BRIAN: Well, you'd know where you limits are. I mean, there's this extended rape scene in the middle which is fairly bad—
GIGANTIC: —yeah, that's when I walked out—
BRIAN: —I almost left in that moment, too. But the way it kind of moves back after that gets really interesting.
GIGANTIC: To where the couple at the center of the film is just sort of happy, right?
BRIAN: Right. It's just such a weird way to do things, and I think it actually does work pretty well.
GIGANTIC: Have you ever walked out of a horror movie because of its horrible quality, or even because it was too much?
BRIAN: I don't know if I've done that because it was too much. I've certainly walked out of things because they were just really bad. [laughs]
GIGANTIC: Any examples?
BRIAN: Well, now that I go to movies less I'm a little more selective about what I see. Also, a lot of the stuff that's really bad now is only available on video. [laughs] Like Snakes on a Plane, which is funny in a way, but…
GIGANTIC: Pretty awful. But hilarious.
BRIAN: I just don't think I was in the right mood.
GIGANTIC: Well, I guess horror can work both ways. It can be brilliant, like The Shining...and then you have Troll 2 and Leprechaun.
BRIAN: Yeah. In recent years, I can't think of anything I've walked out of that I was really offended by or that I thought was just so awful that I couldn't go on. It's partly that once you have kids and stuff, the act of being out at a movie is really satisfying, because you're away. We came close to walking out of this Mike Myers movie that was incredibly bad…The Love Guru, which was probably the worst movie I've seen in fifteen or twenty years. I think we were so stunned at how bad it was that we kept watching.
GIGANTIC: [laughs] But there's something to be said for that. Finding Forrester, etcetera…How old are your kids?
BRIAN: Eighteen and fifteen. So, older.
GIGANTIC: Do you let them watch whatever they want?
BRIAN: I do. I'm pretty flexible. I'm divorced, and they live with their mother a lot of the time, and she's Mormon, so I think she's fairly restrictive in terms of what she wants them to watch. I've been open about it, but I think they come self-censored in advance, so there are certain things they don't want to watch, that they're not interested in. The thing they've been wanting to watch now are the James Bond movies. We've been systematically going through all the Sean Connery James Bond movies and we're just about to start the Roger Moore ones.
GIGANTIC: Oh, I like Roger Moore.
BRIAN: Me too. But I like the Sean Connery ones better. So they like that—they like a lot of different kinds of movies, super-hero movies. They're two girls. They like things like She's the Man, and they just watched 17 Again and really liked that—I haven't seen it, but they liked it. We just watched Wolverine together. It was what it was. But they don't seem to be very interested in horror movies. In fact, that's one of the few things they're not interested in.
GIGANTIC: Maybe that has something to do with who their dad is. And actually, that's one thing I want to ask: you seem to have been embraced by the horror-fiction community. I know the Wavering Knife won an International Horror Guild Award, and I'm sure that there are, in some cases, intentional elements of horror in your work, though I wouldn't describe you as a horror author. So I wonder, although any kind of appreciation is probably nice…
BRIAN: Yeah, any kind is nice. The International Horror Guild Award was a surprise, and that made me go back and pay a bit more attention to what was going on in horror, which I hadn't looked at very closely for a number of years. And there is a lot of really bad stuff being done, but then there are people who are doing things that are interesting in a complicated and literary. So that was, for me, the start of reconsidering these really clean genre distinctions that I thought I knew. There was a Conjunctions issue that Peter Straub edited called the "New-Wave Fabulists" issue, which had writers that would normally be thought of as genre writers being considered on more literary terms. There were a lot of great writers in there: John Crowley, who I think is an incredibly interesting writer. He has a novella called The Great Work of Time that I love. So that got me reconsidering the lines between genres. And I think film is actually tied into that as well. I mean, there's this funny thing with film where most people have no hesitation about crossing genre lines when they see them. Very few people say, "I'm only going to see a literary film or an art film." One day you go to see a Disney film, the next day you go to see a horror film, the next day a kind of drama, so on and so forth. And there's a kind of inclusiveness about that which is very different from the way in which people think about literature. Which got me thinking: maybe there are things that are out there, in genre, that are really interesting and worthwhile. So all that was really coming together for me: the Conjunctions issue edited Peter Straub, the fact that I won the IHG Award, and then just my thinking about film in relation to literature. Eventually, I started reading a lot more genre fiction, and realizing that if you're selective there's at least as much interesting stuff out there as there is in literary fiction. And a lot of stuff that gets called literary fiction is also really bad. I mean, a lot of it's good, but certainly there's your share of bad literary fiction: derivative, it's a genre in itself.
GIGANTIC: It certainly is. Is there anyone you can recommend who's typically considered to be a genre writer?
BRIAN: Well, I think M. John Harrison is really great. I think Phillip K. Dick, when he's at his best, is really amazing. He's not always at his best.
GIGANTIC: Very prolific. Maybe too much so for his own good.
BRIAN: Yeah, he definitely was. Like I said, M. John Harrison is quite good and complicated. There's a book of his called The Course of the Heart which is kind of a horror novel that I really like. Kelly Link is an interesting writer who seems to be on both sides of the genre distinction and is liked by genre people and literary people equally. I think that some of China Miéville's books are really interesting. There's a number of Peter Straub's books that I love as well—he's a terrific writer. He actually has this short story called "Bunny is Good Bread" that is just exceptionally strange and really good—kind of unlike anything else I know.
GIGANTIC: You know, it's hard to mark the actual moment, but it seems like ever since they put out those McSweeney's "Amazing Tales" anthologies that a lot of literary fiction has been moving in a genre direction, or at least shading that way.
BRIAN: Yeah, I think that definitely had an influence. I think there were a lot of things that came together to make people think differently about genre. It's also due to things like the Library of America publishing a Lovecraft volume—canonizing Henry James, who I like, but also Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, so there is a sense that people should maybe think differently. And the French for many years have seen value in noir and other things that American readers have dismissed as less than literary. I think that many people, actually, have been into that, and that it's really just taken us a while to catch up.
GIGANTIC: And what about Lovecraft? He was sort of a despicable person, but…
BRIAN: I like Lovecraft. He was very problematic as a person, and some of the work is very racist, and some of it's awful, but the good work is really good. Again, it's someone like Phillip K. Dick, where you have to pick and choose a lot, but I think that Library of America volume is not a bad place to start. It has all of the good work in it and some not so good. And then, just living in Providence, you have to either love or hate Lovecraft.
GIGANTIC: Is he a real local presence?
BRIAN: He is in some ways. His grave is not far from here, people take pilgrimages to it sometimes. The library here at Brown has all of his archives, so a lot of his letters and things like that are here, along with many of the manuscripts. I mean, yeah, he's definitely someone who you feel the presence of. "At the Mountains of Madness" I think is a terrific story. I like that quite a bit. And then there's one that's called "The Whisperer in the Darkness," which I like a lot. I would say about a third of the Lovecraft stories are really great—they actually hold up.
GIGANTIC: [in a fevered, booming voice] The unholy monstrosity emerged…
BRIAN: Yeah, he is very prolix and over-the-top with his descriptions sometimes. It's sort of like getting into a bath that's too hot. You can either stand it or you can't. But he's someone that's worth knowing about.
GIGANTIC: Just one last question. Horror's had a long evolution—the classic Universal movies from the 30's—Dracula, Frankenstein, etcetera—and then you get the Hammer horror movies in the 70's, and then the 80's slasher craze, and then the remakes of the 80's horror movies, which can be confusing, and now we're into...well…torture porn. And there are always interesting horror films being made, and interesting literary works that shade towards horror. Where do you see it as a genre right now, cinematically speaking? Have you seen anything recently that you've liked?
BRIAN: In terms of film, not much, to be honest. I didn't end up going to see The Last House on the Left, I thought it was weird to remake that, and I wasn't even crazy about the first version of it. It's hard for me to know where it's going, exactly. It does feel a little bit to me like it's churning its wheels, or something—spinning its wheels, I guess you don't churn your wheels.
GIGANTIC: In one of your stories you might churn your wheels.
BRIAN: [laughs] Right, exactly. I don't know, I think we'll probably see a return to more psychological horror, which I'm interested in, and the things I have seen lately that do work have an element of that. One of the many reasons Funny Games works is that it's a combination of fairly violent stuff, yet also more psychologically based stuff. And similar to another movie I found pretty scary, maybe just because I watched it alone in my house, The Strangers, which came out a year ago, I think. I don't think it's a particularly good movie, but it did scare me. There's violence going on there, but the psychological element is really much stronger.
GIGANTIC: And the randomness of it.
BRIAN: Yeah, the randomness of it is interesting. And that's the funny thing about movies like Saw is that they really have to explain it all. The violence is at once heavily gratuitous and you have to have an explanation. Like with the Jigsaw character, it all has to fall into pieces and make sense. And I hope we're going to move back to where things don't make sense. That's the more interesting line to me, where there's a sense of randomness or absurdity. Where the vision of the world that the movie's presenting suggests something about the absurdity of life. I mean, I think life is kind of absurd, so maybe I'm just talking about what I would like to see, which may have nothing to do with the way that things go.
GIGANTIC: But you liked Let the Right One In, right?
BRIAN: Oh, I loved Let the Right One In! We haven't talked about that yet. That for me was a great movie.
GIGANTIC: But also in some ways not a horror movie. More a coming-of-age tale.
BRIAN: Yeah, and the thing I love about that is that it combines lots of different types of movies, and that's similar in some ways to what I like about Audition. They're horror movies, but horror movies that do things you wouldn't expect, like playing around with other genres in a way that's really satisfying. Let the Right One In was that for me. It was probably my favorite movie of all last year. It's like if Bergman had made a vampire movie. There's this cold, Bergman-esque Swedish thing going on along with minor vampire stuff—and there's some very odd moments with that—along with a very sweet coming-of-age story. My girlfriend thinks of it as an after-school-special with vampires, and in a way that's true, and in a way that's what I like about it. In a way, that might be the future that I want to see in terms of how those movies work. Taking elements of horror and moving with them in new directions.
Andrew Bulger is the house illustrator of Gigantic.