We Seem More Normal: Brian Evenson, Utah Valley, and Mormon Representation in Horror
By T.J. Tranchell
Most of the books I’ve read since I was about 15 have been set in far off, exotic locales like England, New Orleans, Maine or East Texas. Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles isn’t quite as foreign because I lived there, and I’ve lived in Las Vegas and Reno. But I’ve never been to Maine and stood in front of Stephen King’s house and I’ve never been to the swampy East Texas that seems like a different planet when I read Joe Lansdale. And La Frontera, a part of Texas vastly different from Lansdale’s as written by Gabino Iglesias in Zero Saints and Coyote Songs, is somewhere I will likely never see. Sure, the people are familiar because the characters are well-developed and people aren’t that much different, give or take a few quirks, anywhere you go. But places, and the way certain places affect certain people can be wildly different.
I grew up in Utah which isn’t exactly known for its output of horror writers or even a large number of literary writers (there are some). Utahns—the Mormon majority, especially—like science fiction and fantasy. (This isn’t place where we discuss the origins of an American religion and how that might correlate into an easier acceptance of fantasy literature. That’s a different topic.) They don’t necessarily like horror. And with respect to my fellow members of the Utah chapter of the Horror Writers Association, the Beehive state isn’t pumping out horror writers in the way New England seems to have done. (Someone else can write about the contemporary way of New England and Mid-Atlantic horror authors. I’d read it because some of my friends would be in it.) And because Utah isn’t making horror writers, there isn’t a lot of Utah-set horror fiction. There’s a smattering of stories and my chapter (who let me in even though I don’t currently live there) does an anthology every year but it seems to me that even the writers from Utah are gun-shy about putting their stories in the places they live.
There’s a vague, nameless “West” that isn’t California, but might be any part of eastern Nevada, southern Idaho, western Colorado, Wyoming, and maybe even Montana, but is rarely specifically Utah. It is a landscape and population that finds itself easily transported into the future of an Orson Scott Card or the timelessness of Brandon Sanderson. But horror? We can’t have that.
Lately, I’ve been reading Brian Evenson. Like me, he grew up a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and like me, much of his childhood was in Utah Valley, the stronghold of the LDS faith even more so than Salt Lake City. His books touch on the religion and the faith of Mormons, even after he voluntarily removed himself from the rosters. (His afterword to Altmann’s Tongue portrays it as a church version of “you can’t fire me if I quit” with jobs, careers, friends, family, and livelihood on the line.) More so, he has written about the place I am from.
Early on in The Open Curtain, the protagonist Rudd travels by bus and thumb from Orem, through Provo, and into Springville. Rudd and his half-brother venture near Spanish Fork and the canyons that cut into the Wasatch mountains. Just south of there is the town of Payson, which you might recognize from the 1984 movie Footloose.I was there, as a child, spending my nights in the single-screen movie theater managed by my grandfather at about the Evenson would have been in Europe serving his LDS mission. When he writes about Rudd’s journeys in south Utah County, it feels like the place I knew as a kid and again later in my teens and early twenties. I’ve been on that bus. I’ve driven through that canyon.
I know all the same stories about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and the stories about Dan and Ron Lafferty.
And, like Evenson but also not like Evenson because we are different writers, I’ve put those stories, that history, into my fiction. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve put that place into my fiction and turned it into what it was for me for so many years: a place of nightmares.
One thing that doesn’t get talked about when we talk about representation in entertainment is representation of place, which can be complicated by negative perceptions of places. Yes, it is important that women of all ages see strong women like themselves in works of fiction and as creative people working in the arts and in STEM professions. It’s important for people of color and those differently abled to see the same. (This is not one of those “what about my white male representation” essays. It is merely me seeing something of my history on the page that I have rarely seen. The lack of seeing where I grew up pales in comparison to the lack of positive representation of many other people in works of art.) We all want to see ourselves and our places in art as much as we want to see people and places we are unfamiliar with.
Seeing Utah in a macabre novel is as much an anomaly to I who lived there as it likely is to those who did not. It’s not the first place one thinks of when they think of the shadowy places, the places where the bodies are buried. But you should. In the afterword of The Open Curtain, Evenson states that he felt he would be done writing fiction from the place of his Mormon background. In 2006, when the novel was first published, that likely felt true to him. But it might be inescapable. A footnote in the 2016 Coffee House Press edition says, “In fact, I have gone on to write another Mormon-related novel, Immobility, which takes place in a devasted future version of Utah and has a lot of references to the religion. And I have plans for another book set in a world not unlike that of The Open Curtain”.
I experienced a similar feeling watching the film Hereditary. The movie doesn’t announce its setting but rather allows it to unfold. I didn’t know going into the movie that it was filmed in Utah, but there was my home state right in front of me and unmistakable. Some things, like the sandstone arch emblazoned on license plates, are more noticeable. Certain addresses and intersections are recognizable, too, but setting isn’t just about whereand who; setting is also about why. Why does it make perfect sense to set a film that, at its core, is an examination of grief and mental illness in Utah? While Hereditary takes place mostly in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah Valley, just south of the state’s capital and where Evenson and I grew up, is known to have one of the highest rates of anti-depressant users, especially among women. And so it should not be a surprise that writer/director Ari Aster drops his main character Annie right into that world. There, she and her mental illness are more normal than one would expect based on a surface viewing.
The rolling Wasatch foothills are also the best part of the low-budget movie Troll 2which, like Hereditary, uses its location well but doesn’t delve into the dominant religion in any explicit manner. Another favorite of mine, Warning Sign, was filmed not just in my hometown of Payson but some scenes were shot at a warehouse building on the other side of a dirt field from my grandparents’ home. Utah is all over the “official” insignia, but any mention of Mormonism was left on the cutting room floor. The same goes for the granddad of Utah-based horror films, Herk Harvey’s 1962 Carnival of Souls. Mormons don’t hire out for church organists; they pluck them from the congregation just as they do for the clergy of the church.
The Open Curtain and Immobility(Tor, 2013)share one key factor: self-identity through genealogy. Mormons like to know who came before us. This need serves many functions. For Josef Horkai, Immobility’s protagonist, genealogy helps him connect to his own past that had been wiped from his memory when he was “stored,” frozen after dying in battle only to be awakened years later. For Rudd, his search is for secret knowledge about his father who died when he was young, a half-brother he never knew about until his teens, and connections to an act of “blood atonement,” an act that church leaders have said was never put into practice but seemingly often endorsed.
As Mormonism continues its inroads in American popular culture (the hit musical The Book of Mormon, for example) and politics (2012 presidential candidate and now senator from Utah Mitt Romney), there is bound to be an insurgence of Mormon-related horror fiction—and, I believe, it will be part of the growing resurgence of religious-based horror fiction and cinema spurred by the success of The Conjuring franchise. It will be like BYU philosophy professor James Faulconer said in 2005: “It’s a lot more common now for someone to know a Mormon rather than just know of Mormons out in Utah. We seem more normal. We’re not as exotic” (The New York Sun, Oct. 18, 2005). Oddly enough, an internet search for that quote attributes it to Brigham Young, the second prophet and president of the LDS church, although at this writing I was unable to find a precise source for it other than the Faulconer usage.
With Evenson blazing the trail, I seek to widen it. My first book Cry Down Dark is set in a place that would seem familiar to Evenson. Sure, I changed a couple names, but the place is still there. And it comes back in my next book Tell No Man. The biggest difference is that I pulled back from church references in the first book. The new one, due out in 2020, takes Mormonism head on. I wish I had found Evenson’s work before I was an adult because I might have turned to these stories sooner, been braver earlier about getting them out and getting them published. I might have faced my place and shown it to the world a decade ago instead of now, as I push 40. Instead, my literary heroes were from places such as New York City, San Francisco, Bangor, New Orleans, and other places I can only visit. And they definitely had no background in the LDS faith or know where Provo is, let alone Spanish Fork or Payson.
It’s old territory to me and to Evenson. It might be new to you and that is a good reason to write about central Utah. Or maybe you grew up there and can’t handle another story about Mormons who are only normal to each other. You want a story that tackles the oddity of your faith or the faith of your neighbors without ignoring the place where you live. Or you want to read about the part of the country you find yourself in without ignoring the people who live there, inside and outside of the church. But maybe it is also like the quote attributed to Young. It’s enough like a place you’ve been or a saying you’ve heard to feel true. As fiction writers, be we literary or genre or floating in the grey area and just writing whatever we want without constraint, it is our job to make the worlds in our stories feel true without being the truth.
We’re here for you, Evenson and I. Drive with us down I-15 or up Hobble Creek Canyon, where there might be bears and there might be ghosts. The truth that too many Utah writers won’t face is that if you write about this place— “This is the place,” the legend says Brigham Young declared—you can’t ignore the church. And if you write about the church, you don’t have to write about a place you’ve never been. Yes, you can still send LDS missionaries to distant planets and not-as-distant countries. You can place your theology in a pseudo-medieval fantasy land full of wizards and swordplay. But you can also place it, as Evenson does, in the small towns we grew up. They are scary places, but that doesn’t mean you should be more afraid to write about them.
Brian Evenson’s latest book Song for the Unraveling of the Worldwas released on June 11, 2019 by Coffee House Press. Find
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween, grew up in Utah, and now lives in Washington with his wife and son. His first two books, CRY DOWN DARK and ASLEEP IN THE NIGHTMARE ROOM were published by Blysster Press and are available on Amazon, or www.blysster.com. In 2020, Giles Press will release TELL NO MAN. Find Tranchell on the web at www.tjtranchell.comof on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.