‘A Collapse of Horses’ by Brian Evenson
Read it here in under 30 minutes.
Thinking about why it’s unsettling…
The story opens with a shocking statement made by the first-person narrator: his family have died, in an horrific manner, while he’s been injured. His tone when revealing this is utterly detached. And he’s using direct address, talking to someone he says is pretending to be one of his dead family members. What’s said, and how it’s said, is so disturbing, the reader may not notice the repeated ‘I am certain’, which is suggestive of an unreliable narrator. His unreliability does, however, swiftly become apparent, when he says he had an accident, and now his house physically changes, the number of children in it changes, and his family is growing afraid of him.
The narrator tells an unnerving story about seeing four horses lying in a field, either alive or dead, he doesn’t know which. He repeats the story about the horses several times. The image of the horses lying there, with no obvious signs of them living or being dead, creates an uncanny effect; a live horse and a dead horse look the same, from afar, if there are no obvious injuries and no decay, yet the dead horse is inherently horrific, whereas the live horse is not.
He decides the only way he can know whether they’re alive or dead is to throw a stone at them; that would result in either annoying a living animal, or the dull thump of the stone hitting dead flesh; one stone, two potential outcomes. But he can’t find the horses a second time, try as he might.
This is a variation of the ‘Schrodinger’s cat’ thought experiment, but instead of considering the cat, it ponders the mental impact on the person outside the box – what does it do to that person, to not know if the cat (or horses, or family) is alive or dead, and to be unable to check – to see evidence that confirms it either way?
The horror builds up, layer by layer. The narrator’s unreliability increases, along with his madness. By the end of the story, the narrator is completely lost. No one will ever be able to convince him he’s wrong, because they can’t open the box and show him the cat.