I’ve been on a bit of a collection kick, if you could not tell and I was unprepared for reading my first collection by Nathan Ballingrud. NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS is a searing, uncomfortable taste of brutal humanity. Describing this collection of stories would be to say it is a splicing of Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor with a dash of Thomas Ligotti. There is not a single story that pulls a punch and Ballingrud is here to (through prose) pummel your heart into dust. Since the collection is a Shirley Jackson Award winner, this should not be surprising.
I cannot even sum up this book correctly, because I have such strong feelings, so here’s the summary:
These are love stories. And also monster stories. Sometimes these are monsters in their traditional guises, sometimes they wear the faces of parents, lovers, or ourselves. The often working-class people in these stories are driven to extremes by love. Sometimes, they are ruined; sometimes redeemed. All are faced with the loneliest corners of themselves and strive to find an escape.
Now to tackle which ones specifically hit me in such away that left me breathless are the following…
To open the collection, “You Go Where It Takes You” is a sharp and brutal lesson in Ballingrud’s dark fiction. The reader follows a waitress, who is also a single mom, who must confront the reality of her situation. When a stranger wanders into the diner, where she works, and offers some subversive thoughts to her, it is up to her to make an unfathomable choice.
We are introduced to a few things that become a familiar thread throughout this collection. First, Ballingrud’s characters are all typically down on your luck, blue-collar characters. some of them are honorable, some are absolutely scummy, but they are all painfully human in their choices and willpower. The second is that the strange, horror element is typically never meant to jump out and “scare” you, as we are often accustomed in the mainstream. Instead, those elements are often cast into the background or purposefully understated, so that Ballingrud can make his larger point, that inevitably *we* are the monsters here, not the ones that we have made up through our mythologies or nightmares. Not a new concept by far, but the sheer style and deep levels of intimacy that penetrates through the prose to the reader cannot be ignored.
This also leads us to the next story and possibly my favorite one of the collection, “Wild Acre” which follows a failing contractor who’s company is bankrupt after a housing development stalls and goes under. After witnessing two of his foreman brutally murdered and him running from the scene in cowardice, he is faced with living with the guilt and regret as his life falls apart around him.
“Crevasse” is such a pure homage to Lovecraft that it is hard to separate it from its’ legacy, but the simplicity of it is worth mentioning here, alongside the unsettling sense of things that may not be as they seem. As a fan of cosmic horror, I really enjoyed this one.
Following on theme of dysfunctional relationships, “The Monsters of Heaven” follows a couple whose child is missing and their marital breakdown. Meanwhile, there are strange creatures that seemingly fall from the sky and are mistaken for possibly angels…Again, Ballingrud is precise in his language and attention to how his main characters feel as the stretch and tension of their relationship frays and pulls apart.
“The Way Station” is maybe the only story that doesn’t follow a particular horror beat and instead trades that for a haunting surreal tone of a homeless man, who is the ghost of a city. Grounded in the South, this story may contain a lot of resonance for those of the Gulf Coast and knowing Ballingrud’s personal history with the Gulf, that is little surprise. This one I had some mixed feelings about, but there were lines from this story stayed with me far longer than any of the others. All in all a great change of pace.
The final story, “The Good Husband” was a fantastic closer and the perfect way to end with a bang or in the style of this collection…a whimper. Here, there is a husband and wife who have clearly not been getting along for a time. The man has been struggling to deal with his wife’s depression and when she reaches the edge, he chooses to do…nothing. The escalation of this story is gradual and the turn that some of the characters take may strike the reader as off-putting, but ultimate pay off is rather incredible, but tragic.
So, in short, this collection needs to be read by anyone who considers themselves as horror aficionado. Ballingrud has become a necessary read for me and I plan to read anything he publishes in future. It is of no doubt that he will leave a huge mark on dark fiction in the USA for a long time to come.