Over the past few years, weird fiction has seen such a flood of enormously talented writers that it can be a procrastinator’s nightmare choosing which novel or collection to pick up next. One of the standouts in this renaissance we’re lucky enough to be in the midst of – seriously, what a time to be alive – is Nathan Ballingrud. You don’t have to take my word for it that his debut collection, North American Lake Monsters should be at the top of your to-read pile; go get it and see for yourself.
And what a mindblowing collection this is. Every one of the nine stories on display here beautifully juxtaposes the terror/beauty of its monster with a nuanced portrayal of humanity in microcosm.
“You Go Where It Takes You” is a short piece, its most searing moment not the supernatural element but the choice a character makes, the off-page consequences that spiral through the reader’s head long after the story itself ends.
“Wild Acre” has to be one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, in any genre or length. The marriage at the story’s core is portrayed with so much brittle, honest fallibility it’s almost painful to read, its characters’ actions and interactions more disturbing than the monster that serves as the catalyst for the couple’s downfall – and that’s definitely saying something.
“S.S.” has a breathless tone that exacerbates the sweaty, confusing aggression of adolescence at its heart, and an ending that surprises as much as it delights.
“The Crevasse” is probably the closest Ballingrud gets to cosmic horror, and the terror he builds here is unbearably tantalising. The imagery he evokes can be felt like an iceberg, all that we can’t see looming vast and unknowable in the darkness.
Another beached relationship is at the core of “The Monsters of Heaven,” exploring the fallout of a couple’s missing child. This is one of the more chilling stories in the collection, both in its portrayal of a crumbling marriage, and the creepily passive ‘angels’ that start appearing all over the world.
“Sunbleached” is a beautifully claustrophobic take on both the vampire myth (and probably one of the best I’ve read in that genre) and the domestic family drama, that starts dark and only gets darker.
In the title story, “North American Lake Monsters,” a man just out of jail tries to reconnect with his wife and daughter at a lakeside cabin, while on the periphery looms the carcass of a strange, beached leviathan. As in a lot of the stories here, Ballingrud explores masculinity in some dark and understated ways.
“The Way Station” takes a slightly different approach, skirting horror and the monstrous in favour of something much more surreal and poetic; a story of the haunted unlike any I’ve read.
“The Good Husband” will break your heart with its exploration of suicide and mental illness, and how those close to someone suffering from such things cope with the fallout. Like every story here, it’s both beautiful and more than a little gruesome, its broken characters teetering on the threshold of a whole new world.
The control that Ballingrud wields in each of these stories is almost agonising to witness; he pulls back at just the right moment every time, the pacing and detail perfectly honed, but also ambiguous when it needs to be. That said, I never felt cheated at any point here, and Ballingrud is certainly not afraid of getting his hands into the viscera of a story when it’s called for.
His prose is economic, needle-sharp, and painfully beautiful. Painful is an adjective I find myself returning to again and again with Ballingrud’s work. Pain suffuses so much of these stories: physical pain, mortal, the pain of existence, of guilt and anger and loss.
So often in these stories the anguish and conflict between people underscores, even overwhelms the supernatural. The latter is almost supporting character, a thing that moves through the story like a shark, hungry and without exposition. What the shark’s trajectory affects, what Ballingrud’s work really hones in on, is the bite marks and the blood left behind, the lingering human consequences and whatever form they take.
He does human interaction like nobody I’ve ever read. There’s so much tangible, tactile pain (that word again) here, and every moment of every story left deep cuts that I won’t soon forget. Every piece here has the sickening intimacy of a found-footage film, and it’s a film I just want to keep watching.