The title of Nathan Ballingrud’s debut collection, North American Lake Monsters, simultaneously conveyed a sense of the pastoral and an abundance of menace. The stories within spanned a broad stylistic range, establishing just what Ballingrud could do — everything from deadpan surrealism to forays into the horrific. Collection number two opts for a different approach: this one’s called Wounds: Six Stories From the Border of Hell. Were you to guess that this ventures more overtly in the direction of horror, you’d be right, but even then, Ballingrud’s fiction showcases an impressive tonal range.
That’s even more impressive when you consider that the six stories within this collection — more precisely classified as four short stories and two novellas — share some connective tissue. We’re not quite in “shared fictional universe” territory here, but neither are these stories walled off from one another, and there are odd moments of delight to be found among the viscera as certain motifs reappear over these disparate stories.
Ballingrud delights in moments of nightmarish transcendence. Several of these stories concern surreal metamorphoses, often posited as a righteous event for those who experience them, even as they may be nightmarish for those around them. This can span stylistically disparate stories: the novella “The Visible Filth,” about a bartender who witnesses a skirmish between two men with unsettling body-horror consequences for one, deals in these themes. But so does “Skullpocket,” about a town in which ghouls and humans coexist, a strange religion has taken hold of some, and certain charming funfair games have lethal consequences.
Both “The Visible Filth” and “The Atlas of Hell” open in contemporary New Orleans and venture from there to somewhere more diabolical — both literally and figuratively. (The effect is not unlike reading a welcome fusion of Ned Sublette and Thomas Ligotti.) Perhaps the most impressive stylistic range here is to be found within the novella “The Butcher’s Table,” about a nautical expedition in the days when pirates and colonial vessels crossed through the Caribbean. It’s reminiscent at times of the television series Black Sails, if said series had also included rival Satanic cults, bizarre creatures, and an order of infernal monks.
Ballingrud’s prose memorably describes the indescribable, which is no small accomplishment. In “The Atlas of Hell,” a rare book dealer with ties to a local crime family is consulted on a case involving artifacts from another world — objects that can alter reality, and how it’s perceived:
Time dislocates, jumping seconds like an old record, and the world moves in jerky, stop-motion lurches. A language is seeping from the skull–a vicious, cracked sound like breaking bones and molten rock. My eyes sting and I briefly squeeze them shut. The skin on my face blisters.
The stories in Wounds feel like both a more focused effort than its predecessor and a foray into different territories. “Skullpocket” in particular abounds with strange religions, altered histories, and varied forms of humanoid life. There’s something carnivalesque about it, but the bleakness of the religious faith at its heart — in which a demonic god imparts macabre visions and earnest young ghouls take human lives with impunity — serves as a potent chaser.
And it’s fascinating to see how Ballingrud utilizes similar imagery in these different stories. Metamorphoses feature prominently in both “Skullpocket” and “The Visible Filth,” for instance. Reading these stories is not unlike undertaking an exploration of what Ballingrud himself finds horrifying. Parasites, fanatics, cannibals, and sinister angel abound. sLike the strange hybrid creatures that populate his narratives, Ballingrud’s fiction weaves in and out of any easy classification: some weird fiction here, some cosmic horror there. In the end, there’s enough nightmare fuel here to inspire weeks of insomnia — all told with an even hand with a penchant for precise storytelling. How else do you chart the furthest reaches of the uncanny?
Wounds: Six Stories From the Border of Hell
by Nathan Ballingrud
Saga Press; 280p.