Wounds, Nathan Ballingrud (Saga Press 978-1-534-44992-3, $26.99, 288pp, hc) April 2019.
Wounds, Nathan Ballingrud’s stellar sophomore collection, is bracketed by a pair of stories concerning Hell. In “The Atlas of Hell”, an antiquarian bookseller is sent by a local gangster deep into the Louisiana bayou to retrieve the titular object; while in “The Butcher’s Table”, a group of 18th-century diabolists undertake the perilous sea voyage to the near shore of Hell to stage an elaborate meal at which they hope the Devil himself will appear. The quartet of stories in between these two are similarly set in locations where the mundane and the fantastic – generally, the infernal – have come into contact, with the fabulous erupting into the ordinary. If Hell is as much a condition of the self as it is a (meta)physical place, then the stories in the middle of the book, each of which shows us the specific torments of different characters, realize the conceit of the first story’s title, providing a kind of experiential map of damnation.
Along the way, Ballingrud plays with genre conventions and traditions, mixing horror with noir, Bradburian reverie, and historical fantasy. In “The Atlas of Hell”, Jack Oleander, the first person narrator, is a former criminal (of a kind) who has tried to go straight, but whose knowledge of certain illegal (and arcane) activities causes him to be summoned by the local crime boss from whose employ he had thought himself free, and who tasks him with tracking the person responsible for those activities into the swamp. Once we are in the bayou, the menace Ballingrud has evoked with such skill in the opening scenes of the story, a threat rooted in the physical danger posed by violent men, transforms into a peril of another dimension altogether, one arising from the intrusion of the hellish into this world. The story gives Ballingrud the chance to demonstrate the range of his abilities as a writer, from the dialogue that has the snap and bounce of Elmore Leonard to descriptions of the infernal rival the best of Clive Barker. One of Barker’s particular strengths as a writer has been his ability to suggest vast, awful vistas through the use of few, select details; it’s a strength Ballingrud demonstrates as well. Rarely have Hell and its terrible ecosystem been described as vividly, as frighteningly.
“The Visible Filth”, one of the collection’s two novellas, extends and deepens the techniques of “The Atlas of Hell”. Again, we are in Louisiana – New Orleans – this time in a bar whose dive has carried it to the level of shipwreck. Will, who mans the bar at night, is an affable twenty-something sharing an apartment with his graduate student girlfriend, Carrie, while carrying a bonfire for his friend, Alicia, who has a new boyfriend. One night, there’s a savage fight at the bar involving Eric, who rents the building’s upstairs apartment and with whom Will is friendly. For his part in the brawl, which clears the bar, Eric receives a significant wound to the face. In the aftermath, Will finds the cell phone a group of college students has left behind, apparently forgotten in the chaos. He brings the phone home, where he reads a couple of sinister texts before going to sleep. The next morning, those messages have been supplemented by photos and a short video. Will looks at them and is sorry he did. The act of perceiving the bad – it might be more accurate to say of choosing to perceive the bad – begins a process of being drawn into its bloody embrace. It’s a manifestation of the larger Gothic anxiety about the dangers of knowledge. What distinguishes Ballingrud’s treatment of the convention is the skill, the precision with which he charts the disintegration of Will’s life. Early in the narrative, Ballingrud describes Will as living his life on the surface of things, not caring to dive too deeply into anything, least of all his own motivations. The story’s supernatural elements, which involve demonic entities hauling themselves out of the human form, serve as a trope for Will confronting what is inside him, the terrible insufficiency at his core. The result is a masterpiece of the novella.
The gritty realism with which Ballingrud brings to life Will’s psyche and surroundings recalls the stories in his debut collection, 2013’s North American Lake Monsters. The same realism is on display in stories such as “The Atlas of Hell”, “The Diabolist”, and “The Maw”, but it’s accompanied by other narrative modes, as well. This is the case in “Skullpocket”, which concerns the annual festival held by the ghouls who inhabit a small seaside town. In the invention Ballingrud brings to his description of the ghouls, their society, and their festivities, there’s all the grim exuberance of Tim Burton at his finest. At the same time, the story’s macabre gleefulness is shot through with a deepening melancholy, which culminates in a darkness reminiscent of Bradbury at his least sentimental. In a similar fashion, the collection’s closing novella, “The Butcher’s Table”, is a historical fantasy involving secret devil cults, pirates, the gigantic corpse of a fallen angel, and an elaborate dinner on the beach of Hell. There’s a suggestion of Patrick O’Brian’s “Aubrey Maturin” novels here; albeit, mixed with the work of Clive Barker (who more and more seems central to Ballingrud’s horror). Where the other stories present us with scenarios in which Hell has vomited forth into our world, “The Butcher’s Table” takes us in the opposite direction with bravado. As with “The Visible Filth”, the story’s protagonist, Martin Dunwood, is animated by passion for a woman who is beyond his reach; unlike Will, however, Martin takes extravagant action to fulfill his amorous aims, setting in motion a scheme of no little ambition. In the process of this story’s narration, we learn the origins for many of the infernal objects and figures we’ve encountered in the stories leading up to it. The result is not so much to transform a collection into an articulated novel as it is to reinforce the conceit of the stories as parts of an atlas, pages whose edges sometimes meet and overlap, even as they guide us through desolate terrain.
It’s one of the ironies of the stories in Wounds that love in its various manifestations plays a significant role in them. The criminal who orders Jack Oleander into the bayou in “The Atlas of Hell” is motivated by love for his dead son, who he has tangible evidence is damned. The protagonist of “The Maw” ventures into a portion of the city into which Hell has made an egress in order to find a dear friend and companion. “The Diabolist” makes mention of the Love Mills found in Hell. In “The Visible Filth”, Will’s inability to love honestly and openly is one of the engines driving him to his doom. In contrast, the protagonist of “Skullpocket” is condemned for being unable not to love by a deity who demands the renunciation of all such emotion. And in “The Butcher’s Table”, the promise of physical love carries Martin Dunwood to the sandy soil of Hell. Rather than good intentions, these stories suggest, the road to damnation is paved with the many splendors of love.
The narratives in Ballingrud’s first collection were united by a particularly focused aesthetic, one fusing the dirty realism of a writer such as Raymond Carver with classic horror tropes such as the werewolf, vampire, and zombie; though the lyricism of his style always suggested other writers, Lucius Shepard among them. This aesthetic is present in Wounds in “The Visible Filth;” although given its length, the time it’s willing to spend with a protagonist who doesn’t really understand either himself or what’s happening around him, evoke the longer work of someone like Richard Ford. But there are other writers present in these stories, Barker, Bradbury, Leonard, and O’Brian among them. The result is a blooming of Nathan Ballingrud’s writing, the opening of orchids whose fleshy petals disclose bloody mouths, wailing the beautiful songs of the damned.
John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman (2016) and House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and two collections of stories, The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013) and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008). With Paul Tremblay, he co-edited Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (2011). One of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards, he served as a juror for its first three years. He lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley with his wife and younger son.
This review and more like it in the October 2019 issue of Locus.
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