Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review: North American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud

North American Lake Monsters is Nathan Ballingrud's first collection of fiction, and hopefully the first of many more to come.

A good horror story stays with you long after reading it. A great horror story doesn't simply stay with you, it haunts you, and Nathan Ballingrud's fiction does just that. He breathes life into rough, blue-collar characters and places them in some of the best dark fiction being written today. Every single story in this collection is an emotional gut punch.  The despair that saturates these tales is rich, and often it is not the supernatural elements in these tales that is horrific.

It is hard to choose favorites from the collection, because each story is just as good as the last. You Go Where It Takes You follows a waitress living a stagnant life, when she is presented with the chance for something new. Wild Acre paints a picture of a man struggling with guilt after a fateful night spent at his construction site. Watching him struggle to regain his old sense of self is painful.

S.S. sees an angry, white-trash youth, fighting to find his place. The depths to which the boy's depressed mother has sunk are horrific enough, but things only get worse when the lost boy tries to get in with a group of white supremacists. The story is a rough one, although the kid finds a sort of redemption at the end.

The Crevasse was co-written with Dale Bailey, and was the first Ballingrud story I read when it appeared in Ellen Datlow's Lovecraft Unbound. Taking place in a Lovecraftian Antarctic, where an underground stairway seems to promise wonders, the story follows a post-war medic on an expedition. One can't help but view this character with pity, as his companions treat him with open disdain.

Monsters of Heaven won Ballingrud a Shirley Jackson award, and was the second story I read previous to this collection, where it appeared in Ellen Datlow's Inferno. Another story about a broken man on a downward spiral, this one still managed to twist my insides as much as it did on my previous read. Possibly the strongest story in the collection.

Sunbleached first appeared in yet another Datlow anthology, Teeth. For an anthology of vampire fiction targeted towards young adults, Ballingrud has written a story that would make even the hardest horror fiction readers flinch. I was surprised at just how dark this story was, from the vampire itself to the self-imposed alienation of the protagonist.

The title story, North American Lake Monsters, is a glimpse into the life of a troubled family. The ex-con spending his first few days free at a cabin with his wife and daughter is swimming against the current in an attempt to make a fit with his family. The man is an emotional roller-coaster, and finds it very difficult to connect with his daughter and bridge the gap that has grown between him and his wife. The lake monster itself serves as a metaphor for the man's many emotions and frustrations, and represents the estrangement from his daughter that is so troubling to him.

The Way Station follows a homeless man who is haunted by the past. When Katrina wipes out the New Orleans that he knows he finds himself lost and confused, on a quest to find his long-lost daughter. The tale's surreal moments blend perfectly with the lost soul seeking an anchor in the tumultuous sea his life has become.

The collection finishes with an original story, The Good Husband. Another story where horror and domestic problems combine, Ballingrud shows a family struggling with the wife's depression. He explores the age old question of suicide: should the person committing the act be saved, or should they be allowed to take their own life? The husband in the story allows his wife to continue with her fourth attempt, weary of going through the same motions. What follows is a story which slowly grows more and more disturbing and sad, with an ending that is sure to leave a strong impression on readers.

This collection is too strong to be missed. North American Lake Monsters will be published in July, by Small Beer Press, and can be pre-ordered HERE.

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