I thought I knew every kind of horror story. If you made a taxonomy of terrifying tales, you
would start, of course, with the ghost story—perhaps the oldest genre of them all—and
then add in stories about various other kinds of supernatural scary beings, including (but
not limited to) goblins, witches, zombies, monsters, and anything else that goes bump in
the night. A whole separate genus covers the more realistic villains in those various
horror books that resemble crime stories. Here we find an assortment of blood-soaked
plots about slashers and serial killers, psychopaths and
the criminally insane. Then we bring in all those sci-fi horror
stories about dystopian futures and demented alternative
realities. Finally, on a higher plane and suitable for the
more erudite reader, we include those works of existential
horror, such as Kafka’s
The Trial or Sartre’s Nausea,
where terror is simply part of the human condition, as
routine as brushing your teeth or taking out the garbage.

That pretty much exhausts the possibilities, no?

That’s what I though until I encountered Brian Evenson.
His stories seem to start where other horror stories end.  
At the outset, something terrible has
already happened.
Our protagonist has already been stabbed or shot or
imprisoned or maimed in a terrible accident. It seems
like the worst is already behind us, that the bloodletting
is over and things can only get better from here. But think
again—in Evenson’s world, a near-death experience is
merely a set-up for what is to come—which might just
be worse than death.

Certainly there’s plenty of violence still ahead in the stories,
but that’s not really the main source of the pervasive sense
of dread that marks these tales. Much of the anxiety here
comes from our heroes’ determination to interpret what is happening—to comprehend
the incomprehensible. That is actually the most striking trademark of an Evenson character:
not that they have survived a catastrophe, but that they can’t rest until they have figured out
why it took place or, in many instances, the bare facts of the case. And they have good
reasons for applying so much focus on these facts, because  if you don’t understand what
happened, it may well happen again. In the context of an Evenson story, that’s almost
certainly the case.  

The narrator in “The Report” is typical of these inquisitive protagonists—or perhaps
‘victims’ would be a more appropriate descriptor.  He finds himself locked in a
mysterious prison with strange rules and procedures. Adding to the puzzle, he doesn't
know what crime he has committed, how long he will be incarcerated, or what punishment
awaits him. But there seems to be a pattern in the way some prisoners are tortured and
others are let off the hook, and it’s possible that some explanation can be decoded in
the cryptic messages that pass from cell to cell, transmitted in a kind of alternative Morse
code. If he can just figure out what’s really going on, perhaps he can save himself. Or
maybe help the others who share his plight.

Tough luck, buddy! In these stories, human reason invariably falls short. Maybe rationality
has reached its endpoint here, but that’s hardly a consolation when the price of a
failure to understand is so high—as it is always seems to be in Evenson’s dark universe.
In a way, these stories remind me of those examination dreams, where you are forced to
take a test you will never pass. Only in these stories, the cost of failure is much, much
worse than a bad grade.

Other Evenson tales begin in equally macabre
settings. A man awakens in a hospital and has
suffered terrible injuries, but the puzzling comments
of everyone around him leads him to fear he has
committed some terrible crime—but what did he
actually do? In other stories, a character is recovering
from a stab wound inflicted by his wife, or bleeding
heavily from a gunshot, or stranded on an interstellar
mining operation where the oxygen levels are slowing
depleting, or in some other desperate situation. These contexts are inherently horrifying,
but mostly because the murky details make it almost impossible to find a rational response
or construct even a plausible response to the obstacles at hand.

In my favorite story in the collection, “BearHeart,” expectant parents pay for a gimmicky
teddy bear that is embedded with a device that plays back their baby’s heartbeat. It’s
supposed to help the child sleep at night. But when their baby dies, the bear starts to
play an ominous role in their family life. In typical fashion, Evenson uses the tragedy that
would normally end the narrative—the death of a child—as the triggering point for horror
to come.   

This type of horror story deserves its own name, a subgenre label all its own. It’s the
horror of the missing algorithm, the conceptual dead end, the unsolvable problem, the
illogical conclusion. It’s almost the exact opposite of our scary nightmares, in which things
happens, but we never seem to stop and think about them—for some reason, that’s not
allowed in the dreamland. Here action slows down, and all we are left with is an attempt
to piece together the meaning, only the pieces just don’t fit.

I guess I will call it epistemological horror. That might make it seem like a kind of
cerebral exercise, but Evenson is anything but a coldly philosophical writer. In fact, in
his hands epistemology can be even scarier than a zombie or a grindhouse slasher.
And his twists on it present a terror all the more terrifying because they are so resistant
to personification. Who needs a monster when the horror is embedded in how we think?

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of eleven books, including
the forthcoming
Music: A Subversive History (Basic Books).

Publication date: March 5, 2019
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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All rights reserved.
This type of horror story deserves
its own name, a subgenre label all
its own. It’s the horror of the missing
algorithm, the conceptual dead end,
the unsolvable problem, the
illogical conclusion.