I almost could not wait to get to Nathan Ballingrud’s second collection, WOUNDS: Six Stories from the Border of Hell, but reading it around Halloween, felt like the best time for it. I wasn’t wrong either, this collection disturbed me as much as the first, and Ballingrud doubles down on the dark fantasy horrors that made some appearances in NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS. This collection also features, VISIBLE FILTH, which was made into a Hulu original movie and aired earlier this month, so be sure to not miss out on that if you can help it!
In some ways this collection of shorts is one of novellas, considering it contains only six stories and the book itself runs almost 300 pages on its own. Yet, Ballingrud doubles down on his subtly dark prose that glides smoothly off the page and into your brain. Few horror stories that give me goosebumps, but every single yarn managed to do just that.
“The Atlas of Hell” begins this collection and maybe one of my favorites in the collection. Featuring a rare book thief turned bookseller, he is swept up to go retrieve a book in the back bayou. No one is truly prepared for what he ends up finding there. A story both of revenge, survival, and the occult.
“The Diabolist,” takes what could be considered a more familiar Lovecraftian style tale, but takes a different spin. Told from a somewhat removed narrator, we watch as a daughter of the local eccentric attempts to deal with his death and past, dark obsessions. This story is set in a town that Ballingrud features quite a bit in his writings, the ghoul run down of Hob’s Landing.
“Skullpocket” is a slow burn of a story. Told as a story within a story within a story, the protagonist slowly unfolds how he was brought into the clandestine order of priests, while also telling how the fair called skullpocket was firstborn. While the story remains somewhat more plodding than the rest, the end is enough to twist your heart in two.
Coming to “The Maw” is a story that will leave the reader with many more questions than answers. Set in a city that seems to be afflicted with being too close to a portal to Hell, we have an unlikely pair searching for something. Both of these characters are fleshed out well enough, but I kept being distracted by the “why” behind the eldritch horrors and infernal terrors that stalked the pair. Even if I was a little foggy with where the story was going, Ballingrud can successfully pull a reader along with his lovely prose.
And finally, we come to “The Visible Filth” the first of two novellas in this collection. It is first and foremost, as you can guess by the title, not a comfortable story. We follow a dive bartender, who is selfish at best and doesn’t seem to have anything else on the horizon going for him. When he finds a cell phone with disturbing footage, something grotesque comes looking for him. By far one of his most intimate portrayals of seemingly callous characters to date, this story is excellent.
Yet, this collection saves the epic, “The Butcher’s Table” for last, which is an original story to this collection. Ballingrud leaps fully into a gruesome and plainly horrifying tale of searching for the map of Hell. We follow two narcissistic men, Martin, a diabolist and Gully his bodyguard, both aiming to rise above their lowly status. Little does either man know that you can’t overcome fate with muscle or wit alone. Using touchstones from all over the mythological landscape of ancient myth and classic poets such as Milton and Dante, Ballingrud takes these and make them fully his own. This is a story that will stay with you for a long time.
This is not a collection you want to miss and it is by far one of the most perfect things I have read right around Halloween time.