Nathan Ballingrud is an author who I’ve been reading about for a long time — largely via reviews of his stories in various anthologies — but who I had not, up until now, actually read. Small Beer Press has helped to correct that oversight by publishing the Ballingrud collection, North American Lake Monsters (ebook $9.95; trade paperback $16; hardcover $24).
The book gathers nine stories, one of which appears for the first time here. There are a wide variety of themes and styles represented, but every tale is smart and stylish, and the stories are often more about the wider repercussions of a supernatural situation — like the ripples emanating from a rock dropped in water — than directly dealing with an attack or an encounter.
“You Go Where It Takes You” is the first story in the book and it’s one helluva leadoff hitter, starting as a somewhat folksy tale about Toni, a waitress and single mother, who winds up taking home an offbeat customer named Alex. The story takes a turn for the strange when Alex confesses that he’s driving a stolen car, and insists on showing Toni what he’s found in the trunk, which is some surreal cargo indeed. Convinced that he’s being pursued, Alex soon moves on, but his impact on Toni continues to resonate, leading to a devastatingly sad ending.
In “Wild Acre” a construction site for spec homes, bordering on wilderness, is marked by repeated acts vandalism. In response, the owner of the construction company, Jeremy, and a couple of his employees spend a (drunken) night at the site in order to guard it. The violent attack — from what may be a werewolf — that ensues leaves one of them dead, but it’s not so much the attack that is the the focal point of the story as it is the fallout from that night. Ravaged by the memories of his inaction on that fateful night, his company forced out of business, Jeremy is a haunted man, dreading even his wife’s holiday party:
“Jeremy supposed that a Christmas party full of elementary school professionals might be the worst place in the world. He would drift among them helplessly, like a grizzly bear in a roomful of children, expected not to eat anyone.”
Blue-collar protagonists are a staple of Ballingrud’s work, and in “S.S.” that role is filled by Nick, a high school dropout working as a restaurant dishwasher. Stumbling towards acceptance in a white supremacist gang, Nick’s dismal existence is complicated by the bizarre yearnings of his elderly, infirm mother. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this particular tale, but it’s dark and disturbing nonetheless.
“The Crevasse,” co-written with Dale Bailey, expertly utilizes its Antarctic setting, as a scientific expedition stumbles upon something vast and Lovecraftian beneath the ice, although some members of the group are unwilling to admit what they’ve seen. In “The Monsters of Heaven,” the sudden appearance of strange creatures that are referred to as angels — and of one such creature in particular — helps to fill the gap left in one couple’s life by the disappearance of their son. But this is no feel-good story — the specifics of just how the “angel” fills that gap are…disturbing (there’s that word again).
Ballingrud turns his eyes to vampires in “Sunbleached,” and, fortunately, it’s a refreshingly offbeat take. Joshua lives in a hurricane-damaged house with his mother and younger brother…and, lately, with a sunburnt vampire hiding in the crawlspace beneath the house. Joshua tries to manipulate the weakened vampire into doing his wishes, but he soon finds he has underestimated the danger lurking below.
A hurricane also figures in “The Way Station,” wherein progatonist Beltrane is aging, homeless, and more lost than ever after Hurricane Katrina. This story is something of a departure from the other tales here, a surreal saga of a haunting, by the ghost of New Orleans itself.
“The hole in his chest reaches right through him. Gas lamps shine blearily through rain. Deep water runs down the street and spills out onto his skin. New Orleans has put a finger through his heart.
“Oh, no,” he says softly, and raises his eyes to his own face. His face is a wide street, garbage-blown, with a dead streetlight and rats scrabbling along the walls. A spray of rain mists the air in front of him, pebbling the mirror.”
“The Good Husband” is a heart-wrenching story of a husband who, weary of his wife’s suicide attempts and convinced that she will never know happiness, chooses to let her succeed with her latest attempt. But his decision comes back to haunt him when she comes back from the dead, although it’s a temporary return, as she is slowly, inexorably pulled toward the soft whisper of the grave.
North American Lake Monsters is a diverse, highly-engaging collection from a grossly under-appreciated author. Hopefully this collection is the first step towards rectifying that.