Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, from the feisty independent Small Beer Press, has quietly established itself as one of the high points in the new resurgence of American horror and dark fiction, the kind of book that other writers in the genre benchmark themselves against. The nine stories in this collection range from Lovecraftian through vampire and werewolf stories to far less classifiable creations, like those in “The Monsters of Heaven” (winner of the inaugural Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story) or the title story itself, which is available online in full here, courtesy of Weird Fiction Review. However, they are anything but tales of vanquishing monsters, because in most cases the monsters are either embodiments of the characters’ failings or vices, or cracks in the world that those personal flaws have opened. Rarely are they completely alien – rather, they mostly have an intimate emotional relationship to the protagonists, however warped; the grotesque sports washed up on the polluted shore of the American Dream.
Ballingrud’s monsters may be monsters of the Id, but they are also American sacred monsters: The Rugged Outdoorsman, the Redneck, the Rebel Without A Cause, the American Father. One of the possible weaknesses from a non-American point of view might be precisely the strength that John Langan identifies in his excellent review of the book in the Los Angeles Review of Books: that Ballingrud reinvigorates “the horror tradition in which he participates by returning to that Hemingway-Faulkner source.” Ballingrud’s Ninety-Nine-Percent protagonists – ex-cons, smalltown boys, waitresses, struggling small business owners – may not be so appealing to outsiders, but they certainly make for gritty and genuine substance the tales, as well as having the kind of non-so-nice drives, passions, and experiences that give sufficient reason for the monstrous intrusions into their lives. And Ballingrud has “worked as a bartender in New Orleans and a cook on offshore oil rigs,” according to the book’s materials, so he knows whereof he speaks.
“I wanted to write pieces that hurt. I wanted to write about people we’re conditioned to regard as contemptible, or dull, or even as villains, and get to their humanity,” said Ballingrud in an interview also in Weird Fiction Review. “We live in a society that encourages us to view each other in simplistic and tribalistic terms, and that leads to an erosion of empathy, which is destructive to the human condition – to our ability to live successfully in an integrated society. It’s important that we look at people we think of as evil or irredeemable, and find the thing inside them that can still be loved. We’re doomed, if we can’t do that.”
If that makes North American Lake Monsters sound too much like hard work or harsh therapy, though, it shouldn’t. Ballingrud is simply a very good writer, and far defter and subtler in both characterization and construction than some of these headline statements would imply.
“Horror fiction should harshly interrogate everything that makes us feel content,” Ballingrud declares. “It’s the devil’s advocate of literature. We absolutely need that, and that’s why it abides, whether we call it horror, or Gothic, or strange, or weird. It’s all an interrogation.” Recommended.