‘You Go Where it Takes You’ by Nathan Ballingrud

He did not look like a man who would change her life. He was big, roped with muscles from working on offshore oil rigs, and tending to fat. His face was broad and inoffensively ugly, as though he had spent a lifetime taking blows and delivering them. He wore a brown raincoat against the light morning drizzle and against the threat of something more powerful held in abeyance. He breathed heavily, moved slowly, found a booth by the window overlooking the water, and collapsed into it. He picked up a syrup-smeared menu and studied it with his whole attention, like a student deciphering Middle English. He was like every man who ever walked into that little diner. He did not look like a beginning or an end.

Winner of numerous accolades including the Shirley Jackson Award, and a game changer for horror fiction, Ballingrud’s astonishing collection North American Lake Monsters is an achingly real tapestry of the sort of fears, mistakes, regrets and inabilities to change that curse us as human beings. The stories could easily have rested on their laurels as pieces of realism, but instead dare to be expertly seasoned with the downright weird. These stories do not need to be horror, but horror – here’s the thing – elevates them and makes them sing. The prose is breathtaking, but, more importantly, here is someone who knows what horror is for. He sees horror as the only way to express the lives of people, deep down, and reinvigorates genre concepts by using an unflinching eye and consummate control of language. For instance, in ‘Sunbleached’ he describes a vampire as ‘a dancer pretending to be a spider’ and I’m damned if you need any more than that. Vitally, Ballingrud is quoted in a recent interview saying: ‘I believe self-interrogation is a key to strong fiction. You should write about what you are ashamed of. You have to be merciless with yourself. That’s why I like to write about characters so easy to hate. Writing fiction is, in no small part, about practicing empathy: and if there is a noble purpose in literature, it’s (that).’ Exactly the philosophy I aspire to. Horror is there to desolate, yes – but it is there to show humanity, even as, sometimes, it shows inhumanity. Ballingrud also knows that the real game is: ‘What’s the least I can do to make this horror?’

First published on SCIFICTION July 13 2003; collected in North American Lake Monsters, Small Beer Press 2013. The story can be read here

‘Skullpocket’ by Nathan Ballingrud

By far the best story in this anthology (I’m not lying when I say the other tales in this book simply didn’t stand a chance when the editor included this one), ‘Skullpocket’ features Jonathan Wormcake, the Eminent Corpse of Hob’s Landing – and Nathan builds a world that is extremely tilted, but man alive I would pay whatever price I had to visit it. It starts like a piece of ‘high-pulp’ (the best compliment I could ever give) and you’re unsure if you’re reading a children’s story and then… you forget about what it is or isn’t and just read it. It’s a horror yarn that has a horrific ending that completely works – and that’s a rare thing, indeed.

First published in Nightmare Carnival, 2014. Read it online here

‘Wide Acre’ by Nathan Ballingrud

Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters is one of the very best collection of North American weird fiction I have read; like Raymond Carver if he embraced the weird fiction tradition running from H.P. Lovecraft to Laird Baron. ‘Wide Acre’ is essentially a story of PTSD, but one that also features a werewolf. Not as metaphor or allegory, but neither as a key part of the narrative. What is important the fallout from the horrific event; the attack that kills his friends and traumatizes the protagonist also ruins his life. The implication being that some events can never be got over.

First published in Visions Fading Fast,Vol. 12012collected in North American Lake Monsters, Small Beer Press, 2013