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Nathan Ballingrud – North American Lake Monsters (2013)

09/16/2016

I picked this up around the time that it came out because I was in Asheville and had enjoyed Ballingrud’s story (co-written with Dale Bailey) “The Crevasse,” and promptly added it to my monstrous to-read pile, where it languished for about three years. I finally moved it to the top of the pile after loving his “Atlas of Hell” in last year’s Year’s Best Weird Fiction. Unlike that later work, though, a kind of aggressively pulpy look at cosmic horror in the swamps of Lousiana, the stories collected here tend more toward realist slice-of-life stories deflected off-course by an encounter with an otherworldly intrusion. Said intrusions tend toward the tropes of traditional, mainstream horror (werewolves, vampires, zombies) but Ballingrud uses this traditionalism as a base to examine trauma and survivor’s guilt and masculinity (toxic or otherwise) and fractured families – these are stories generally more interested in what happens after the scare than the scare itself. His concern for the combined effects of work and the weird on families isn’t too far off from Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After, but Ballingrud lacks Marshall’s sense of whimsy and is much more firmly grounded in horror as a genre than Marshall’s more slipstream approach. Almost all of the stories here are set in western North Carolina (where he currently lives) or Louisiana (where he used to live), and Ballingrud is one of those writers in whose stories the setting is typically almost a character in its own right (a wonderful trait).

You Go Where It Takes You • (2003)
A single mom working as a waitress in a Louisiana diner that caters to oil rig workers goes on a date with a man who has a collection of human skins/identities. This proves a tempting alternative to her current inertia and lack of choices. “Do you think a good life can redeem a horrible act?”

Wild Acre • (2012)
A group of men camp out in an under-construction housing development which has been subject to thefts and vandalism. They’re attacked and mostly killed by a werewolf. The lone survivor is our protagonist, the employer of the other two, who finds himself isolated from his wife and friends and subject to fits of rage and violence. He isn’t a werewolf, though (probably), just suffering from PTSD and survivor’s guilt and lack of work in the mountains of western NC, where the (now abandoned) housing development mirrors his increasingly-desolate standing in the world.

S.S. • (2005)
A teenager struggles to reconcile his love for and duty toward his wheelchair-bound (single) mother with the expectations of his neo-Nazi girlfriend. In a Ballardian flourish, the mother’s depression expresses itself through self-cannibalization. A lesser entry, this one never really cohered for me.

The Crevasse • (2009) (co-authored with Dale Bailey)
A post-WWI team of explorers in Antarctica find something unsettling beneath the ice. Pulpier than the other stories in the collection, this is kind of a gloss on “At the Mountains of Madness” but with more of a concern with concurrent historical events – our protagonist was a medic in the war who later lost his wife to the flu pandemic (“God’s judgment on a world gone mad”), and he’s now in a semi-suicidal state. Having fallen into the titular fissure, a mortally-wounded sled dog endlessly crying just out of reach prompts reflections on mercy and death. Does not feature Agua-Mala-style water monsters – it turns out that I had conflated this story in my head with Holly Phillips’s “Cold Water Survival,” also in Lovecraft Unbound.

The Monsters of Heaven • (2007)
The horrors-of-religion story, certainly, but perhaps also the closest Ballingrud gets to cosmic horror, however obliquely. A child vanishes while his father naps some time before “the Lamentation,” when the bodies of angels turn up throughout the world. The father has redemptive fantasies about macho violence and his son’s kidnappers. When he and his wife (whose marriage is crumbling, surprise surprise) find a still-living (but mortally wounded) angel, things take an erotic and cannibalistic turn. While the trauma and sense of abandonment and anomie and disconnection is similar to many of Ballingrud’s other stories, this one has more of a sense of catharsis than most.

Sunbleached • (2011)
In Hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, a teenage boy strikes a deal with a vampire hiding in the crawlspace. The boy is an alienated loner (of course), his single mom is struggling (of course), and it doesn’t take much for him to be convinced that vampires are the pinnacles of God’s art, vastly remote from the day-to-day concerns of the humanity they’ve left behind. This despite (or because of?) the fact that the vampire is half dead, burnt by the sun, starving, and crawling beneath the house with the other vermin. If I had to point people to a single story here, it would be this one, probably the best post-modern vampire tale I’ve read, surpassing even Bob Leman’s “The Pilgrimage of Clifford M.” (1984) – or, at the very least, equaling it. The shade-less, storm-ravaged environs of Louisiana is the perfect foil for Ballingrud’s sense of place.

North American Lake Monsters • (2008)
A father just out of jail vacations on the Blue Ridge mountains with his wife and teenage daughter. They find the decaying corpse of a lake monster nearby, the stench and unwashable stickiness of which mirrors his own bitterness and toxicity, particularly about his daughter’s maturation into adulthood.

The Way Station • (2011)
The ghost story: a homeless man, washed up in Florida after Katrina, is haunted by his former city (“He was always safe in New Orleans, which he knew as well as he knew his own face”) as he searches for the daughter he’s been estranged from for years. Intersperses flashbacks to the casual racism he endured in the city’s bars and streets with wonderfully surreal visions of people and cityscapes melting into one another.

The Good Husband
The zombie story: A woman is driven to suicide after years of depression, and her husband decides not to try to stop her anymore – but neither find the release they were looking for. The one previously-unpublished work here, a truly harrowing story of death and caregiver’s exhaustion and mental and physical disintegration (so much physical disintegration). A masterclass in using alternating POVs to build up and break down the reader’s sympathies.

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