I have perhaps become spoiled by my time splashing in the shallows of genre fiction, seduced by the promise of easy entertainment and little cognitive output. This is not to say that either fantasy or science-fiction are, on the whole, mindless. Of course not. We have seen over the past decade (or a bit more), the ascension of Tolkien to literary classic, and, if sci-fi remains somewhat ghettoized, it nonetheless has shown its potential for inspiring scientists and technologists and raising questions about urgent social issues. But, and of course there’s a but, most genre fiction is of little value beyond the amusement it initially offers the reader. The mid-range of SFF, in which (I think) I most often wade, can be hit or miss, and, consequently my brain…thing has atrophied…or something. In any case, when presented these days with a novel that can be identified both as genre (horror) and literature, I am befuddled. Intimidated. Unequal to the task. Thus was my experience with Brian Evenson’s The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press, 2006).
The plot is simple enough. Rudd, whom, the reader will quickly learn, is a troubled adolescent, discovers that he has a “long lost” half-brother, Lael. “Lyle?” You might ask, as will every other character in the novel. “No,” Rudd calmly repeats, “Lael.” Rudd is both attracted to and repulsed by Lael, who is a manipulative bully. Rudd severs ties with him, only to be drawn back to him when they both become fascinated by the 1902 murder of a woman committed by Brigham Young’s grandson. The boys see in the murder the rite of “Blood Atonement,” a violent ritual, the existence of which the Church of Latter Day Saints denies.
Without going into too much detail (no spoilers!) Rudd ends up the lone survivor of the violent murder; the other victims are a family unrelated to Rudd. It’s at this point that the reader encounters Lynn–whose family was killed. Lynn begins visiting Rudd in the hospital, where he lies in a coma. She becomes obsessed with watching over Rudd, protecting him, since he was the last person to see her family alive, and may be able to identify the killer. Rudd awakens. Eerily, a love affair blooms between the two, and Rudd moves in with Lynn. With increasing horror, the reader questions every decision Lynn makes, as it is clear that Rudd is, to put it mildly, “not quite right.” The ending imagery of the second section is nightmarish.
The third section of the novel–well, I won’t go into much detail. Suffice it to say that it is surreal, and jumbled, and confusing, perhaps the best a sane person can do to imagine what it might be like in the mind of a man who is not sane. (Confession: I was helped along here by handy notes and marks left in the margins by the previous reader.)
And, really, it’s that last scene in the second section, and the entirety of the third section, that made me question my ability to do The Open Curtain justice. I recall thinking, while not yet very far into the third section, thinking, “Just what the f*** is going on?” It’s startling, and puzzling, and, I realized, it’s meant to be. Evenson isn’t a lazy writer, and he’s not merely messing with his readers’ brains. Rather, he’s using the vehicle of his story, and the literary devices that comprise it, to demonstrate for readers what it might be like to be mad. It’s shocking, and disorienting, and confusing, and troubling–as it should be.
Can I effectively describe the subtle ways in which Evenson draws his characters, how he makes them real? Probably not. They are all, in their own ways, busy making the wrong decisions, even as the reader’s frustration builds. No, Rudd, don’t go visit Lael. Lynn, please stop trying to “fix” Rudd. Hooper Young–well, I’ll let you get to Hooper on your own.
Evenson closes The Open Curtain with an Afterword that (blessedly) sheds light on his intent. Evenson was raised Mormon, and the book is, he says, his “farewell” to to the LDS, from which he increasingly felt estranged, and from which he ultimately requested excommunication. Most people would simply walk away; that Evenson requested to be cast out speaks to the strength of his feelings. Indeed, Evenson avers that there is at the heart of Mormonism a kernel of violence that, he feels, colors the entire faith. The Open Curtain is about a Mormon ritual (of questionable historicity), and, more generally, religious violence. Devoted members of the LDS, or readers with especially weak stomachs (gore is present, but not excessive) are advised to steer clear of this book.
When I first heard of Evenson and The Open Curtain, it was a reference made in an article about the “new Gothic.” I haven’t been able to rediscover the piece that first piqued my attention. But now, having finally had the opportunity to read The Open Curtain, I better understand the reference; the book is brimming with darkness, madness, and violence–all in the best possible way. Evenson bends readers’ minds. I look forward to whatever phantasmagoria he pursues next. Highly recommended.