North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud
Small Beer Press 2013
Purchased from Amazon UK.
Quoted on the back cover: “One of my favourite short fiction writers.” – Jeff VanderMeer
MY REAL-TIME REVIEW OF THIS BOOK WILL TAKE PLACE IN THE COMMENT STREAM BELOW AS AND WHEN I READ EACH STORY:-
You Go Where It Takes You
That’s what happens with my real-time reviewing so that title could become the motto for this site. That’s what happens with this story, too, pretending it doesn’t know where it’s going and maybe it doesn’t about a waitress in a waylaid cafeteria and her backstory toddler daughter and ex-man, and a new man who wanders in says he’s on the run stolen a car shows a hat that he found in the car (a hat coincidentally like the virtual reality hat in a story I happened to real-time review this morning here before I even received this new Ballingrud book in the post) and if I told you more of what else was inside the car and what decisions had to be made you would know where the story was taking you before it took you as, soon, it entrancingly took me, a DH Lawrence short story feel to its plot and prose notwithstanding, but American and modern, not early 20th century English coalfields, but the oil rig eyes on the Gulf of Mexico seen from the cafeteria are fair enough, and I chose to follow where it took me or the part of me that it flensed chose to follow.
An unknown feral force – providing an apocalyptic goriness about which the text does not pull its punches – is released upon three men waiting at night to defend their property against assumed vandals among the bare frames of houses yet to be fully built, and the survivor’s guilt constitutes this grim story’s repercussions radiating upon those relatives affected by the incident (an incident mis-blamed on a wolf) including the survivor’s own wife, and the consequent feral forces built up within himself…
It’s as if we are merely that basic frame of fate’s options or decisions that we need, as in the previous story, to furnish with a future’s filling, to fight each of our corners between and around the forces that serve only to flense each layer of civilisation from us toward revealing core humanity’s bare-bone vulnerability…and we can’t in the end even produce piss correctly let alone sharper, more deadlier ammunition to prove ourselves. Nothing came, but from what or toward what? Very poignant and effectively conveyed.
“A Madonna in Hell’s ink.”
…his devastatingly debilitated mother he cares for in the grim cross-beams of dereliction both compared and contrasted to his girl Trixie who becomes his “illuminated manuscript”, reminding me of the toppled Nativity manger and its Christ (here to become ‘a striding Christ’) and the manger’s other figures scattered (in the previous story) through uncontrolled temper, and here we have more attempts to control temper, keeping guns or penises pent-up by fortuitous accidents: again reminding me: the de-stabled horse that had (if just figuratively) been his Dad now returned by toppled horse-box. This is an almost unbearably powerful story, in expertly poetic as well violative text, expert enough to make you forget that it is striving for such expertise but forgetting only while you are reading it. Here in hindsight do I evaluate its stylistic expertise, as I relive, from just a few minutes ago, the terror of requiring racial purity in your heritage yet paradoxically staining your own skin with image impurity. A youth turned feral force.
“…the only way you might get to know something about your dad is through the kind of man you grow into. It’s like a special hidden message he left you, or something.”
The Crevasse (with Dale Bailey)
“…though he’d stowed the Bible in his gear before he left, he hadn’t opened it since and he wouldn’t open it here, either, lying sleepless beside a man who might yet die because he’d had to take a piss–“
Early twentieth century, Antarctica, three men, one man dying, dogs pulling, one sled falls down a crevasse, one dog needing rescue by death – but the sudden crevasse becomes an inexplicably vast stairwell, as cosmically mysterious, I guess, as man’s great war with war, and a tragically retro-influenzial plague’s punishment of man’s connect with woman, and of feral forces that mix rare good intentions among the bad…a vast cathedral beneath and of the ice to house whatever’s God…
This story, in context with the previous ones and as a separate work, genuinely chilled me and not for the obvious reasons of snow and jagged desolation, but with its portrayal of man’s nature within nature and what turns out to be the subsidal ground he believes most of the time to be solid beneath his feet. Only classic horror stories such as this one can tell their own stories about us.
“As with the trenches in France, corpses were easy to explain in Antartica.”
The Monsters of Heaven
“He played out scenarios, tried on different outcomes, guessed at his own reactions.”
I am very impressed by the accretion and separateness of fiction in this book so far, sometimes reminiscent of the work of Joel Lane (echoing Ballingrud’s work I’ve now read or indeed vice versa) here, for example, in this story, with the lamentatorily passive angels whose sudden visionary appearance in the breaking news of our world is found unspokenly acceptable by humanity – and containing a pent up anger…
Here, this book’s trademark pent-up anger is that of Brian who is understandably obsessed with the unexplained loss of his young son, the resultant marital skewings, leading to ‘objective correlatives’ of his own bodily vital part (cf the previous stories), a desperate attempt at stimulating it by his wife and, later, by a well-characterised pub prostitute, in contradistinction with that same vital part of the angel ‘whom’ they either adopt as their hoped-for marriage-mending, body-consuming (literally) foundling-changeling at worst or their son’s lostling at best.
A diffuse yet pointed fable, that also happens to be a very powerful horror story that I will not easily forget, even if part of me wants to forget it. Balling red. Lawrencian, too.
“You got your one lousy star.”
I think I can honestly say that this is the most effective vampire story I have ever read, unless I am suffering an enthusiasm of the moment. Actually, I think the foregoing fictions in this book act as this story’s embrasure, a frame house like that in the second story, disroofed by the storm from the first story’s Gulf, ‘stranded’ (explicitly with regard to the boy protagonist’s Dad) in the topped and now tailed house rather than on one of those oil rig eyes. The relationship within the underframe crawlspace between the boy and vampire is both touching and frightening like passive-aggressive angels together – and the crawlspace also contrasts with the vast endless night of the stars’ own eyes. The mother’s boy friend failing as disposable spear carrier. And the scene with the younger brother talking through the floorboards as if to his Dad is absolutely absolutely devastating. And the inevitability of the ending that can only give itself away as the eternal spoiler… Bloodflow but other bodily fluids sun-depleted… “I about pissed myself.”
North American Lake Monsters
“…a dozen vegetable christs.”
…but this seemed like a quieter tale, even if still full of a controlled rage at being in prison for six years, his teenage daughter now grown up, dating and spiked-pinned by fashion like this book’s earlier Trixie with her tattoos — and with his problematically stoic acceptance of his wife’s short affair with another man while he was away… Time to regroup, but people of this ilk find it hard to rediscover the past or gain hope from the future together. I happened to be listening to a piece of modern atonal piano music on the radio while reading this story, gentle, almost melodic, music, like someone doodling gently on the keys in a respectable drawing-room, but suddenly, without warning, it went frenetic, with discordant crashing of the keys. And I was visualising the beached monster by the lake near their home that he and his daughter investigated – but the prose description of it was even more effective, in its way, and only supplemented by the music. A transcendental experience as I considered the dead monster not only as metaphor for this dysfunctional family but something hopeful, too, as if ugliness held more beauty than beauty itself. Its mouth the entrance to a ‘gaping sunlit cathedral’ … like that earlier crevasse?
“The old anger — irrational and narcotic in its sweetness — stirred in him.”
Overnight, I had a waking dream about an elephant. An animal often anthropomorphised, even deified, then subject to deicide. It has a trunk, or at least a dozen ones in Ballingrud’s fiction, more than just vital parts, and indeed, in the previous story, I wonder if this is the imaginary-real North American version of elephant, effulgent hefferlump, sketched by the ex-prisoner’s stigmatised daughter, an ‘objective correlative’ that bears reading alongside the two poems DH Lawrence wrote about the elephant, entitled ‘Elephant’ and ‘Elephant is Slow To Mate’…
The Way Station
“Nothing is doing anything it isn’t supposed to be doing.”
Almost a down and out, in a shelter for such, Beltrane travels from the urine smell and urinals to his own city-wet bodily ghost of Katrina’s ocean (cf that storm that topped off Sunbleached), a haunting that, if exorcised, may well leave nothing at all, judging by the local church that is also a fabrication or way station like this book’s earlier toppled manger or this story’s conflagrated Christmas tree, I guess. As well as such dyscopated existence from hand to mouth to ghost-loaded belly, Beltrane seeks the younger woman he tries to subsume by sex in a vehicle as water-logged trunk or boot that reminds me of the monster in the previous story – and he also seeks a long-lost daughter, an open-ended quest with which we are left seeking, too, from that prisoner’s prison of the past. Deadpan or diffuse, yet sharply resonant with all manner of original visions that will stay with the reader. You can’t often use the word ‘original’ about fiction these days as we overload and overlap upon the church’s internet screen, searching for lost ones as well as lost stories parading as new. To unload ourselves.
The Good Husband
“Somebody had to keep it together. Somebody always had to keep it together.”
And perhaps having been given this gestalt, one owes it to the whole book to do so. It is as if we have been dress-rehearsed for this final story by all the previous stories. I am surprised it is not more famous as a story (or perhaps it already is famous and celebrated, as I have not tried to search the internet for Ballingrud until I have finished this review nor read other reviews of this book).
It starts with the balling red, the piss and blood, in a bathroom, and a fulfilment of responsibility by the very act of irresponsibility (or vice versa?), a crime being not always a commission but the failure of commission, yet here it is a terrifying blend of both. A mixed love and hate after a lifetime of marriage and wanting to do the best. It seems strange to talk about someone living after their successful suicide, strange, yes, but, an original thought that presents a parallel with ‘Sunbleached’, here the crawlspace a cellar, the frame house now a construction of dead birds or roadkill, the ant-ridden monster on the lakeside no longer effulgence-in-potentia and not discovered by the daughter this time but rather the daughter is brought wilfully to the monster. A huge bloodless wound of a story that I dare not tell more about for fear of spoiling it for new readers. Just accept, however, that the earlier (now human finger-scrabbled) crevasse might lead here to “steeples and arches of bone; temples of silence” rather than to a cathedral’s innards. Or perhaps they are the same thing?
Honestly, a devastating yet inspiring culmination worthy of its book’s foregoing context, and that can give all of the constituents of that context no greater praise or constructively painful appreciation.
My review of The Visible Filth: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/the-visible-filth-nathan-ballingrud/