North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud may seem like a slim volume, but don't let the size fool you. Each one of these nine stories has the capacity to seduce and terrify you like any of the most heavyweight horror authors out there.
Ballingrud has been publishing his fiction sporadically since 1992 with "Memories of Green" appearing in the magazine Forbidden Lines. He picked up his pace a bit more in 2003, publishing in a handful of anthologies and magazines, such as Jeff Vandermeer's The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases and Ellen Datlow's Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural and Lovecraft Unbound: Twenty Stories. A decade later, nine of his short stories have been collected into one powerful book.
There's been something of a surge in really good weird horror fiction lately, with novels like Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation, collections like Karin Tidbeck's Jagannath and TV shows such as True Detective. Ballingrud's North American Lake Monsters is at the front of the pack, with twisted, engaging stories about the weird things around us, and the deeply flawed characters whose lives are impacted.
Ballingrud's stories tread lightly with fantasy, when they incorporate elements of it at all. There's a sense of deliberation throughout the book, from the prose to each word on the page. And, what words they are. Each of the stories in this book blew me away with their excellence, completely capturing my attention. It's like watching a car accident as you pass by: someone's having a terrible day, and you know it, but you can't help but watch as you slow down. Here, you can't help but not turn the pages as you follow terrible days for a fascinating cast of tormented characters.
The book's first story, "You Go Where It Takes You" features a waitress who's confronted with a man on the run with a trunk full of human skin. That's not really the essence of the piece, however: it's more about the waitress and her angry daughter. When all of the elements come together, it turns from creepy to heartbreaking. A later story, "Monsters of Heaven" examines a family dealing with the kidnapping of their only son, with a sort of supernatural intervention.
Others play with the supernatural more directly: "Wild Acre" follows a man who loses a pair of friends to a werewolf. "The Crevasse" carries with it a Lovecraftian edge under a glacier in the Arctic, and a recently freed convict deals with a grown daughter and with recently beached lake monster in "North American Lake Monsters". "Way Station" follows a haunted man in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and "Sunbeached" brings back the scary sorts of Vampires.
Several stories really don't play with the supernatural at all. A teenager finds love and companionship in a local white supremacist group, all while dealing with an ailing mother in "S.S.". The book's closing story, "The Good Husband," plays with a husband dealing with his wife's suicide and ghost — or has he lost his grip on reality? Often, it's never entirely clear exactly what's going on in the character's heads and even when there's fantastic elements, it's with a light touch.
All of this is supported by Ballingrud's impeccable writing. His stories are gorgeous and sublime, pulling you into the story until you can't escape as he flips the table on you, slowly building the suspense before a rapid boil. I found myself enraptured with each story, utterly sucked in. It was a disappointment when I came to the last page.
Ballingrud's reluctance to really explore the supernatural in his stories is the collection's strongest point. I've always enjoyed fairly realistic stories with a dash of magic. Under the supervision of a lesser writer, I can imagine where some of these stories would be completely overwhelmed with the supernatural, but here, it's the perfect amount: just enough to throw a twist into the character's lives.
At the heart of each story is a set of complicated characters facing some problem with some element of the supernatural impacting their lives. Sometimes, they're reacting to something that they can't conceive of, such as a werewolf, a vampire or a vaguely Lovecraftian presence. Other times, the problem is far more grounded in reality, such as one's invalid mother, the death of a loved one or one's relationship with their family. The horror that's portrayed is rarely the supernatural, but from what people do to one another. That, I think, is far scarier than anything we can make up.