Let me just say this right up front. Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters is one of the greatest horror collections ever published. An absolutely unique voice, deeply fleshed-out characters, and plot lines that will both break your heart and shock you. Nathan’s focus is on the regular 9-5 “common person” trying to get by. One of the major themes of the collection is characters who are trying to find some kind of compromise. Things are never gonna be great, but is there a way to make life worth living, and what price do you have to pay? To learn to live with compromise, to take what you can get, to learn to be happy with the only choices you have, to live with the decisions you make, is the crux of many of these tales. Also, a major theme in this collection is failure. When confronted with the supernatural, with malignant evil or forces beyond your control, human beings… fail. They cry and they beg and they run. And somehow Nathan manages to mix such bleak themes with a poetic beauty, these are gorgeous stories of heartbreak and ruin.
Nathan reminds us that the horror tale is not just one of cultivating fear or providing the reader with a fun rollercoaster ride of adrenaline. Here the horror tale explores the ways we are transformed by the dark, by the strange horrors we can find ourselves lost in. How dark can things get and still be able to find a way to live with it. There is a strong feeling of despair to these stories, things will never be what you had hoped they would be. His writing is a prose of pain, of emotion. Of rending hearts and silent cries alone in the night. His mastery of character is so rare in horror fiction. Breaking from the tradition of Lovecraft and Ligotti, his stories revolve around the characters. They are absolutely real, as you read his work you feel like one of these characters could have been someone you worked with or had talked to briefly at the bus stop.
Nathan is a master of the elliptical tale. His stories in this are never what you think they will be about from a brief plot description or the beginning pages of the tale. He is not interested much in big exciting set pieces here. Here he delves into the most private thoughts of his characters, the secrets that they will tell no one, the shames and the regrets that fester in their soul. These are explorations of humanity, raw and unfiltered. You see yourself, in your most private and exposed moments here, facing the dark and the uncertainty of existence. Because you become so connected to the characters, because you understand their plight, the horrors in the tales are just that much more hard-hitting.
Some brief descriptions of the tales contained within:
You Go Where It Takes You. The perfect story to open up the collection on. And also one of the rare stories that actually emotionally messed me up when I finished it. It is a real sucker punch to the face. Absolutely heartbreaking and disturbing in equal measure. A strange man walks into a single mom’s life. He meets her at her waitress job at this run-down diner. This story of the vortex of darkness one can find oneself in, brought into your life by some strange yet intriguing man who promises to help you, reminds me of a Ray Bradbury story, but with a denouncement so bleak that Bradbury wouldn't have dared. When life has failed you, will you take a chance at a new beginning, no matter what the cost?
Wild Acre. A tale of beasts and how we live with traumatic events we are forced to live through and how they affect us in the long term. When our lives are on the line, when our friends are in danger, how will we react? And is surviving no matter what worth it?
S.S. A young man trapped in a life of embarrassment and despair. When he sees a lifeline out, a monstrous path he could take, but one that is better than the life he is living now, is it right to take that path? A tale that is genius in the way it shifts in and out from harsh realism to subtle and surreal dream imagery
The Crevasse. A bleak tale set in Antarctica. An expedition team has to bring an injured man back to basecamp, but then encounter a strange hole in the ice, a hole that has held a secret for eons. The sounds of whimpering dogs lost in the eternal night. A homage to classic cosmic horror tales but one only Ballingrud could have written.
Monsters of Heaven. A tale of strange beings falling from the sky. Beings strange, silent, and... sexual. People kidnap these things, injured from their descent from the sky, and hide them in their homes. Some people even call these alien things... "angels".
Sunbleached. The lure of the dark and seductive and the price you pay when you get what you want. A classic vampire story told in a unique way.
North American Lake Monsters. We kill what we don’t understand. And sometimes we are the monsters of the story. A mood piece and an examination of how we react to the strangeness of our lives.
The Way Station. We live lives unknowable to others. And our private hurts and fears can shape our world in very real ways.
The Good Husband. A tale that shows how bleak a horror story can be. It reminds me a lot of Bob Clark’s film Deathdream. Maybe a hint of Eyes Without A Face? A story that does not look away from pain but explores it to its limit. A real test of endurance, how much misery can a reader handle?
The world we inhabit is a bleak one. A vast infinite black emptiness hangs over our heads, and we scavenge on this cold dark earth for whatever pleasures we can grab before we die. But all the same, we try to love, to give, to nurture, to try to hang on to some small glimmer of hope. Even in the darkest of times. What hope can be born from the repulsive, the abhorrent? What faith can we find in this weak and failing flesh? What compromises must we make and what long-standing dreams must we leave behind to find some kind of happiness? These are the questions Nathan’s stories in North American Lake Monsters ask. His monsters are beautiful in their cruelty and loving in their malice. They represent something beyond the day-to-day life, the banal work days and lonely nights. They represent mystery and transgression. Something to long for and desire even as it ruins you. Smoking cigarettes, drinking whisky, desiring the shadowy and the inhuman, the poisonous things we do to make life livable. These beautifully rendered visions of a compromised hope, of a longing for more in a world of dirt and failure. There is an honesty to horror, an acknowledgment that the world is a harsh, cruel, and bizarrely unknowable place. Yet beauty can still be found. And hope, even in the darkest of places.