Sunday, June 28, 2015

American Nightmares

A friend of mine recommended this volume of short stories, by an author whose name was unknown to me, and although I'm perhaps not the easiest person to suggest books to she hit the money on this one. Maybe she just knew that "lake" and "monster" are a combination I can't resist.

Actually, there's only one lake monster in the collection, and it's a doozy, but there's horror of some kind in all nine tales. I won't get into the question (a fairly tired one at this point) of whether Nathan Ballingrud is a "horror writer" who happens to set his stories among down-and-out, emotionally drained working-class Americans, mostly in the South, or whether he's essentially a "realist" who likes to draw on the horror playbook for material; let's just say that his approach, which is leavened by a good bit of subtle black humor, is his own, and a refreshing one at that. So here on the one hand you have convincing characters who are waitresses, building contractors, oil rig workers and the like, and on the other you have vampires, werewolves, and the undead. There's one story ("S.S."), dealing with a young New Orleans man dawn to a Neonazi group, that appears to have no fantastic element in it, although it may be as uncanny as any of the others. One tale ("The Crevasse"), the only one not set in the US, is a kind of homage to Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

Ballingrud is quite deft at juxtaposing these elements, and also in the way that he works into the stories an underlying substrate of guilt, much of it connected with family members who have let each other down in one way or another. There's a father whose neglect may have led to his son's kidnapping, another father who is struggling to revive his relationship with his family after a stint in prison, and a number of characters who are simply overwhelmed by their family responsibilities. In "The Good Husband," for example, a man wakes in the middle of the night and finds his wife's body in the bathtub, the result of the last of multiple suicide attempts, and decides to go back to bed without calling for help. (What happens next I won't reveal, but it's one of a number of stunning plot twists in this collection.)

North American Lake Monsters is available from Small Beer Press. Ballingrud has published one other book, a novella entitled The Visible Filth, which is published by This Is Horror in the UK.

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