Brief encounters: “Past Reno” by Brian Evenson

From A Collapse of Horses

There is a shopworn cliché in horror films that involves a group of travellers stopping at a rundown outpost where they encounter a creepy local who warns them not to proceed any farther. Horror movies being predicated upon supposedly smart people doing some very dumb things, the explicit warning and its blatantly unsettling method of delivery are inevitably ignored. This trope relies on the characters dismissing or minimizing well-founded ill feelings and abandoning anything resembling situational awareness. (For examples of this particular narrative device in action, see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, Cabin Fever, or Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes.)

Brian Evenson – whose work channels Kafka as much as it does Poe – is surely not unaware of this cliché when he appropriates a variation of it as the opening scene in his unnerving short story “Past Reno.” The story – which features a protagonist named Bernt driving from California to Utah to clear up his late father’s estate – is a work of exacting concision, employing a sparse, indirect style of narration that emphasizes the story’s unease through successive events that are held just slightly out of focus.

That opening scene is typical of the author’s subversive approach. Bernt stops at a convenience store outside Reno, where he is surprised to discover that one entire aisle is devoted to nothing but jerky. It’s not the brand names or artisanal local variations that make Bernt uneasy, so much as the unlabeled products lining the bottom row – “chunks of dried and smoked meat in dirty plastic bags held shut with twist ties.”

Though there is nothing explicitly wrong – at least, nothing Bernt can consciously identify – he nevertheless flees the store with a sense of foreboding, which only in retrospect appears like the first link in a chain of disquieting occurrences.

If Bernt does not immediately make the psychological connection between the mysterious row of meat products in the convenience store and a disturbing incident from just before he fled the family homestead more than a decade previously, the reader is certainly invited to draw such comparisons. In a flashback we are presented with Bernt’s domineering, militaristic father (who never leaves the house without ironing a sharp crease into his jeans) dragging his son to the storm cellar on the family property. The father ushers Bernt into the darkness with a voice that is “cold and hard” to observe a secret kept padlocked underground. What Bernt sees presents an obvious chime with the scene in the convenience store:

He groped his way forward, but because of the way his own body blocked the light, it wasn’t until he was a foot or two away that he realized that what he was seeing were strips of drying meat. Hundreds of them, sliced thin and sometimes twisted up on themselves, with nothing really to tell him what sort of animal they had come from. Though it was a large animal, he was sure of that.

The uncanny aspect of the scene is enveloped in its lack of concrete detail, which is typical of Evenson’s approach throughout his tale. “Past Reno” takes to heart Henry James’s warning against “weak specifications” in tales of the unnatural – like James, Evenson recognizes the utility of ambiguity and the way in which indirection and suggestion can serve to keep a reader on edge.

No one save the protagonist is given a proper name; the other characters – Bernt’s father, Bernt’s girlfriend, and sundry incidental figures – appear only with generic designations. And the protagonist’s name itself chimes with a common English word evoking something charred or blackened or – as with the jerky at the story’s beginning – smoked.

The echo between the opening scene and the unidentified meat in the storm cellar extends the aura of psychological, almost Freudian, dread, as does Bernt’s final bequeath, a box with the words “Bernt’s Pittance” printed on it in his father’s handwriting – a package Bernt deliberately opts not to open. Evenson withholds the narrative payoff, preferring instead to heighten the uncanny aura that pervades the story from its very first lines.

This authorial tactic of refusing to provide concrete details or direct indications of what various objects or events signify decreases the psychic distance between Bernt and the reader; even as the protagonist claims to feel ill at ease and strains to understand the import of incidents that befall him, so too are we charged with divining meaning from the brief sketches and minimal context the author provides. Bernt relates a story about helping his father slaughter a pig, noting in particular that when his father cut the pig’s throat, he got not a drop of blood on him. If Bernt is unclear as to what this might signify, the reader is likewise left with little more than supposition and a sense of creeping anxiety.

This approach is reified when Bernt visits a restaurant restroom that has two mirrors above the sink, one fastened on top of the other. What should be a tool for reflection or self recognition becomes at first another puzzling, vaguely threatening intrusion on Bernt’s already discomfited psyche; when he returns to the restaurant and smashes the mirrors, he discovers that the wall behind them is blank. It’s a fitting metaphor for a story that teases its reader with elusive meaning while playing on the subconscious and simultaneously augmenting the mood of pervasive eeriness. In “Past Reno” human motivations remain opaque, not least to the figure at the story’s centre, who travels through a macabre landscape of incipient threat and psychic disjunction, all of which remains, by the end, a cipher.

Brief encounters: “Past Reno” by Brian Evenson