Like an asp curled languidly on a hearthrug before a fire. The venom in its cheeks flaming and agitating, even as its coils loosen and luxuriate under the cheerful heat. Its tail waving gently with pleasure, lightly teasing the toe of its master’s boot. The language in Brian Evenson’s The Open Curtain is that kind of animal: calm, still, with a suggestion of ordinariness like any household pet; a body innately cold, awakening with slow delight under flames; dull, delicate scales without, and a sweet phosphorescence of poison within.
In this novel Evenson continues his indictment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), demonstrating again, with a sense of intimate tragedy, that inherent in the histories, tenets, rituals, and laws of Mormonism (or any religion worth its salt) are the makings of classic horror fiction — violence, secrecy, subversion, repression. Here two Mormon rites in particular generate the psychological shock waves that destroy a young Mormon boy, Rudd Theurer.
Coming late in the novel, but humming with several of its themes, is the temple ceremony of marriage, in which new and secret names are given to the bride and groom, and in which God’s hand, in the form of the husband’s, emerges through a slashed curtain to grasp the bride. Driving the action from early on is the purportedly apocryphal and definitely murderous ritual of blood atonement, which promises that a sinner whose wrongs exceed the limits of divine expiation may be cleansed by the baptizing of his grave with his own lifeblood. Rudd also suffers, by virtue of heredity or trauma or both, from the suicide of his father, who cut his own throat (see ‘blood atonement’).
In his afterword, Evenson writes: ‘Violence … has always been a largely suppressed and unacknowledged part of Mormon culture.’ He lays claim to a certain didacticism, and explicitly acknowledges his attempt to link Rudd’s disintegration to his LDS culture. There’s no pedantry in the novel itself, however. It’s possible to find evidence for Rudd’s corruption by a dank, unhealthy atmosphere that glorifies martyrdom and cherishes the hidden, just as it’s possible to argue that the mythos in which Rudd has been raised lends its particular form to Rudd’s general disturbance. But neither of those approaches really seems to jibe with the book.
One reason that a disapproving, rational critique of Mormonism falls short is that, despite the protest that Evenson lodges in his afterword, even he doesn’t seem completely convinced, in the fiction itself, that the worldly church — clumsy, ineffectual, transparent in its devices — can rival the stink of something else, something ancient and unnamable, a ‘blotted, shambling shape in the dark.’ Rudd’s Sunday school experience is a trivial irritant. And, when told from Lyndi’s perspective, the mysterious, ritualistic poetry of the marriage ceremony, which will unsettle Rudd so irredeemably, only barely manages to leak through a travesty of awkward, unconvincing artificiality.
But it does leak through a bit. Besides the temple like a ‘third-rate wedding cake,’ the escalator emptying into a chapel where a vibrato organ moans, the disembodied voice emanating from hidden speakers, the made-for-TV passion play, the prompters to help with incantations, there is also the ‘ritual [cleansing] with water then [the anointing] with oil, the hands of old women touching her forehead, then reaching in through the open side of Lyndi’s robe to wet her back, her hip, her calf, each touch startling, a little burst of light.’
Even if readers admit that modern-day LDS practices retain a certain hypnotic sway, however, they may remain unconvinced that Evenson is giving a lesson on the sociology of Mormonism. If there’s any lesson at all, it’s about the power and sweetness of evil, the malicious hand that holds its victims still in a vicious grip so that it can pet them, coddle them, contort them, till they are limp with fear and pleasure and pain and reverence. If Evenson is saying that that unbeholdable face smiles behind Mormonism’s pink and foolish countenance, then he must know that we cannot do otherwise than sink to our knees before it, perhaps to hide ourselves against the earth, perhaps to upturn our throats for the offering.
The vessel of plot that contains these dangerous explorations is itself the stuff of classic horror, taking the form of the manifestation of dissociative identity disorder within Rudd: the arousal of his second self. In this case, Rudd’s split manifests as a half-brother, the bastard son of Rudd’s father, Lael Korth. Lael is beautiful, strong, and commanding. That Rudd should resist his mastery is as impossible as that the moon should outshine the sun. Lael is so vivid, so insistent, so alive, and so relentless in contrast to Rudd’s blurred, ailing, helpless innocence that it is impossible to believe he is imaginary, unthinkable that Lael’s violence could be latent in Rudd’s tender misery, untenable that Lael is not an entity in his own right.
And such an entity! Surely Lael is a demon of the Mormon god, without doubt he’s a recurring devil who, a hundred years before, in the incarnation of Charles Elling, tempted Rudd’s antihero, William Hooper Young, the grandson of Mormon giant Brigham Young, to murderous retribution and forbidden rite, and who foists the same gift on Rudd. In a protracted final scene of superb cross-cutting, unendurable pathos, and tremulous tension, Evenson will bring down his hammer to smash these games of identity. But by this time all is sinister — neither lies nor the truth offer succor.
The voicing is gentle, soothing, and melancholy, but it’s infused with a chill and bitter edge, like the first bites of winter’s black cold at autumn’s delicate, wasted flank. No matter how mad and infernal the writhing of Evenson’s plot becomes, the tone is always controlled: mounting to a tense whisper, almost but never quite a hiss. There’s order in his chaos. To take in the world through the eyes of his characters is to see, with a sudden and sickening lurch, ‘fragmented’ side by side with their ‘normal,’ ‘spinning’ substituted for their ‘placid,’ ‘shattered’ coexisting with their ‘homey,’ and ‘inchoate’ haunting their ‘familiar.’
The novel takes place within a kaleidoscope, but the players have learnt to stumble down the tunnel with quick, false assurance. They are practiced in throwing out their hands and clutching at phantoms to regain their balance. They approach their front doors: regard blankly the sun striking fireworks off their polished knockers: their portals swing wide: without surprise they confront fifty yawning abysses, fifty front halls whirpooling into darkness: they step into the clutches of fifty aproned hobgoblins: 500 red-tipped fingers clutch at them: they peck with deadened domesticity a whirling circle of malformed, gaping mouths. If a worm of sick unease hunches its way through their innards, munching as it goes, they swallow hard, and force it farther down.
Still, there’s no surrealism here; the floor may crack and sway, ‘the floorplan may [shift] with each step,’ but the movement oozes forward, unhalted, never tangled in its own distortions. The narrative keeps marching, steady, inexorable. Rudd’s classmates, his mother, his teacher, keep marching. The elders of his church keep marching. The readers keep marching. Most horribly, Lyndi — whose perspective informs the middle third of the book, who becomes Rudd’s bride, whose family Lael has murdered, the bodies of whose parents and sisters Lael has laid out on the earth to form, in aerial view, the pattern of slashes in the Mormon temple garment — marches, though her legs are weak.
She began to realize that he was seriously disturbed, perhaps a great deal more seriously than she could even imagine. There were times his eyes would flutter oddly, his speech lodging in his throat and coming out as if there were another throat hidden within….
Once she was reading a leatherbound Book of Mormon and he came, sat on the couch, looked over her shoulder.
‘What’s that?’ he asked. ‘A diary?’
She looked around for what he might mean. She lifted the book slightly. ‘This?’ she asked.
‘The Book of Mormon,’ she said.
He drew closer, squinted. ‘Don’t lie to me,’ he said. ‘I can see perfectly well the pages are blank.’
She thought at first he was joking, torturing her in some new way, but soon realized that he literally couldn’t see any text on the page. As the month went on, she realized that a selective blindness extended not just to the Book of Mormon but to words or phrases in the newspaper, to things said on television. There was no pattern she could see to it, and four days after believing the Book of Mormon to be blank he picked it up, read a passage from it, seemed to recognize it perfectly….
She often opened the yellow pages, flipped through the appropriate listings. There were too many names, no indication of who was good and who wasn’t. Besides, if his condition were revealed, they would take him away. She was afraid of what was happening to him but was also afraid of being left alone.
Only Rudd himself does not march, does not grip with relentless hands the kaleidoscope’s spinning discs. He is dragged in an undertow of foul and unremitting dread. At first his condition seems harmless, the dizzy nausea of the carnival ride of adolescence:
When reading aloud, he found, you couldn’t pay attention to what you were reading; your jaws were too busy moving and slipping around the words and trying to make the archaic sentences sound like they made sense. You felt no substance, but there was a formal satisfaction to the act. When, at home, in his daily scripture study with his mother, he asked if he could be the one to read from then on, she was ecstatic, saw it as a sign that he’d finally taken an interest in the Church. But it wasn’t that, not at all.
He was starting to have an odd relation to words. Phrases from the Bible or elsewhere would catch in his head and keep circling round and about, digging a groove in his brain. The oddest little thing, just a phrase or two. ‘Lo, verily,’ it was for a while. He would be eating a sandwich or watching TV all the while thinking, Lo, verily.
Later, when the blackouts come, his passivity is illness, something to be waited out, endured, to be burned out with fever.
He became distracted. His grades slipped…. He found himself standing in the principal’s office with no memory of how he had gotten there or what he was there for…. [There] were gaps like that, odd moments when his body seemed to run on its own and he couldn’t remember where he had been or what he had done…. He wanted to ask Lael about it but couldn’t admit to another person, not even Lael, what was happening.
Strange minute drawings of disembodied human hands began to appear in the margins of his schoolbooks, and a series of lines that he recognized as the sacred marks on Mormon undergarments…. There was an aching in his head almost all the time, his life was slipping away from him and what was left was blurred on the edges and fading….
He would go see someone, he would go talk to someone, he told himself. A counselor at school perhaps. Only he didn’t go. What would he say? …
Sometimes I am not in my body.
What do you mean?
I don’t know.
Where do you go?
I don’t know that either….
Sometimes I am not in my body, he heard.
Just what I need, he thought, to have that phrase stuck in my head.
At last, when Rudd has killed Lyndi’s family, and has lost himself absolutely, he yields up any clear consciousness of his own suffering. He scarcely exists except as the point on the end of a knife that someone’s pushing deeper into something.
Evenson increasingly shifts his attention away from character study toward the events and relationships that weave tightly around Rudd, snaring him, like tough, sticky spider’s silk around a moth. The microscope lens trained on the bubbling amoeba becomes a rifle scope following a fleeing animal through flashes of foliage. The graceful, taut line of tension shivers, hums, vibrates, jumps, clots, tangles, jerks, and snaps. Elling obliterates Lyndi, Lael obliterates Elling, Hooper, weakly, half-obliterates Rudd. Rudd, or what’s left of him, is all at once very much alone. The kaleidoscope smashes on the floor, which is suddenly steady and unforgiving. The space in which Rudd finds himself is grim and deathly still. It’s a desolating short study in madness and sorrow.
You wade out cautiously in the tide pool, and squirm with queasy delight as the muck caresses the bottoms of your feet and climbs up your legs. Then Evenson has the back of your neck in his grip, your head is shoved underwater, your eyes are staring and bulging in the subterranean world and the brine is eating at you. When he drags you up, your first breath of air is so deep and ragged that it cuts at your lungs like a rusty blade.
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