Monday, July 21, 2014

TC Review & Interview: Nathan Ballingrud roars from the gates with NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS, his powerful debut collection of the weird and the brutal from Small Beer Press

In writing stories that are firmly entrenched in the horror genre, the temptation is always to dance around the human element for a bit before rushing headlong into the supernatural.  Glancing at the homo sapiens just long enough to fulfill some literary obligation before full-on ogling the monsters.  It's easy to get caught up in such obvious Big H Horror signposts, as those fantastical elements are what drew most of us to the genre to begin with.  But that sort of "too much of a good thing" is what can often ruin a great story, much like too much sugar can ruin a coffee, too much salt can render a stew inedible.  A master chef doesn't go overboard with the spices in their gastric preparation, but elects to show restraint, and in doing so, introduces and opens up every ingredient in the meal, instead of clubbing one over the head with something that should be subtle and not overpowering.  THIS IS GARLIC!  THIS IS CHILI POWDER!  OMG HOW YUMMY IS ALL THIS EXTREME FLAVOR!

Subtlety - in appreciation and also in practice - is learned for those in which it does not innately manifest, and the older I get, and the more weird/horror fiction I read (and write), the more I appreciate such elements of subtlety as context, allegory, metaphor, and the interplay of the human condition.  That the very same tales also deal with werewolves and vampires and sea monsters and alien gods is just icing on the cake.  In these sorts of piece, taking the focus off of the obvious monster allows the reader to discover beasts so much more terrifying and infinitely more brutal.  They weren't necessarily born monsters, so have few if any excuses when they decide to don monstrous trappings.

Nathan Ballingrud weaves just this sort of dark literary tapestry, employing a subtle yet powerful hand in his stories filled with broken people and sometimes monsters, and in doing so, balls up a knotty fist that hits you so hard the bruise will never fully heal.  This perfectly balanced style is on full and glorious display in North American Lake Monsters, Ballingrud's debut collection of brutal, fiction in the short form from Small Beer Press, which was recently awarded a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award in the category of Single Author Collection (sharing the honor with Before and Afterlives by Christopher Barzak), and is currently nominated for a 2014 World Fantasy Award.

These are startling tales that root down to the meat and bones of who we are as humans, in worlds both familiar and those that are intertwined with the fantastical. Cleanly rendered reality plays set amid backdrops of the weird, where the horror can just as easily come from your garden variety mother or father, son or daughter, showing us that anyone, anywhere is capable of very bad things, depending on the vagaries of their day-to-day situation, and the choices they willingly make.

Guilt and frustration cut a grievous through line down the center of many of Ballingrud's tales in this collection, fully realized to the nth degree in "The Good Husband," which is not only my favorite story in North American Lake Monsters, but one of the best short stories I've ever read, in any literary genre, or no genre at all. From the first page, the life-altering decision of a self-centered man struggling with a marriage to a clinically depressed woman is so unexpected that it stole my legs out from under me. Just like with most of the stories in this collection, every action has a reaction, and ultimately a consequence, and this is fleshed out with devastating effect in the narrative.  Just when you think every story has been been told...

Coming in just behind "The Good Husband" in the quality category is "You Go Where It Takes You," which dips us into the life of a waitress and single mother living on the edge of Gulf in Louisiana, possessed of few joys and even fewer options for anything better in life, making her decision to spend time with a seemingly very Average Joe who asks her out almost an afterthought.  Told in Ballingrud's strong, often poetic yet unencumbered style, we are hit with a surprise jab about 2/3 of the way through to stun us just enough to set us up for the decapitation that waits at the end.  The final image of the story stayed on my mind for weeks, and still pops to the front of my brain on occasion.

It's often what Ballingrud doesn't write instead of what he does that distinguishes him from his peers.  For example, in "Wild Acre," he doesn't focus on the events of what are very clearly a werewolf attack that befall a group of friends at a construction site in a new housing development.  Instead, he explores the much more interesting angle of survivor's guilt for the guy who got away, documenting the survivor's guilt in excruciating detail.  It's an extraordinary way to handle the often played out circumstances of supernatural monsters killing poor, hapless humans, and yet another example of Ballingrud viewing horror fiction with a new, innovative eye that sees things different than the rest of us.

The fetid splendor of New Orleans, where Ballingrud lived for several years, features prominently in many of the stories here, including the surrealist "The Way Station," as well as the page turning "S.S." which veers away from the weird to stomp its muddy boots on the carpet of reality, following a wannabe skinhead as he attempts to make his bones with the local legit hardcores. This is a haunting, thought provoking piece, mining true horror from areas not normally associated with it.

One of these more classic horror tales is "Sunbleached," which is a vampire story worthy of Matheson, sinuous, heartbreaking, and refreshingly creepy, which is a rarity in vamp fiction these days. "The Monsters of Heaven" combines Ballingrud's skilled handling of failed relationships with an otherworldly discovery in an alleyway, that changes the dynamic between two people in unexpected ways. "Crevasse" appeals to my inner (and outer) cosmic horror fanboy by screwing down the classic combination of wonder and dread with the uncomfortable whimper of an injured sled dog, bleeding out on the ice deep inside a fissure.  Both sad and creepy, this is great example of alien horror that doesn't take its marching order from Lovecraft, but does tip the hat to the old maladjusted gent from Providence.

The title tale is just as much an examination of fractured family dynamics and the difficulty in putting the pieces back together after blowing up the nuclear unit as it is about a strange creature that washes up dead on the beach of a secluded mountain lake.  Ballingrud once again balances the familiar with the unknown, allowing them both to feed of of each other, strengthening both host and parasite at the same time.  It's a deft balancing act, and undercuts most of his work in this collection, with extraordinary results.  In doing this, the writer creates stories that are as relatable as they are fantastical, teaching us about ourselves as he exposes new ways of telling a horror story.

I try to make it a habit to read as many of the short fiction collections that come out each year. Some stand out. Some do not. A few rise above, and feel as if they are pushing genre fiction forward, giving strength to horror fiction's (rightful) claim to literary legitimacy, and keeping strong the long tradition of excellence for stories rendered in the short form. North American Lake Monsters is one of those collections, which should be part of the landing party when horror fic sends its ambassadors down to the surface of Planet Literature to draw up the cosmic map of written word ownership.  He's one of our best, our brightest, our most unique, who is tilling up new ground in an over-farmed back 40.  North American Lake Monsters is an important work of speculative fiction, that will stand up to the weathering of the ages.  I cannot wait to see what Nathan Ballingrud does next, and where he takes us, as readers, and as members of the dark fiction community.
If you could write like he does, you'd be smiling, too

Thank you, Nathan, for taking the time to sit down with The Cosmicomicon.

I think it’s only good manners to properly set the table before one starts serving the food, so – if you could – please give us a bit of background on your career.  When did you first start writing, and was becoming an author always a goal?  What and who are some of your influences, in terms of what you like to read, and what you think has bled into your work?

I started writing stories when I was still in grade school. Being a writer was always part of the plan. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was, “An astronaut and a writer,” or some variation of that. I didn't really know how to go about the business of it until I went to Clarion, back in the early 90s. I made my first professional sale within a few months of that experience, but then I stopped for quite some time. I just didn't feel ready. I had a lot of reading to do, and a lot of living. It was roughly 10 years later that I started writing with what I consider to be my natural voice.

There are so many influences, and they’re constantly changing. The big horror writers of the 70s and 80s were very influential - King, Straub, Barker, McCammon - and later I discovered the realists, and fell under their spell for many years. Writers like Richard Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver. When I started to drift back into fantasy and horror, it was after being caught by the work of writers like Lucius Shepard and Maureen F. McHugh. Of course there’s also the inspiration of place - New Orleans, the Appalachians, the more abstract idea of the South; and of music - Pink Floyd, Ani DiFranco, Nine Inch Nails, Glen Hansard; and comic books - the work of Mike Mignola, Rick Remender, the EC Horror pulps … I could go on forever about influence. I think a writer should remain in active conversation with the culture, which will provide a constantly shifting range of influences.

You've moved around a bit, geographically-speaking, writing while you did, which shows up in your work.  Do you think some stories were specifically born in places like, say, New Orleans, that never would have been written had you never lived there?

I think so, yes. Or, more specifically, they would have looked a lot different. “The Way Station” is specifically about New Orleans, and saying good-bye to a place you love, and that you felt defined you in some way. It was cathartic to me, and I doubt it would have existed without my having lived there. “S.S.” feels like a very New Orleans story to me, even though its central conflict could have been set in any number of places. “Sunbleached” is a Gulf Coast story, and couldn't work in the way it does anywhere else. I don’t know if I can say the same thing about the stories set in the Appalachians. New Orleans affected me so deeply. I’m still writing about that place, and I suspect I always will.

North American Lake Monsters is such a fantastic title, as it’s evocative, strange, and instantly intriguing.  How did you settle on this name for your book?  With this your debut collection of short fiction, how did you hook up with Small Beer Press?

I stole that title from Mike Mignola. In one of his comics, one of the characters is described as being away cataloging North American lake monsters, and I loved the phrase so much I knew I had to write a story around it. When it came time to title the collection, we considered it along with “You Go Where It Takes You” and “Monsters of Heaven”. This one seemed to please the most people. I like it because it suggests a kind of naturalist’s handbook. It appeals to the cryptozoologist in me.

I was lucky with Small Beer Press, in that they approached me at just the time I had a collection ready to shop around. I never would have thought to go to them myself; I believed my stories were too dark, the horror too overt, for their tastes. It just goes to show that you should never make assumptions about what an editor does or does not want to see. Small Beer has been a dream to work with, and precisely because they’re not known for horror, the book has gotten into the hands of a lot of readers it might otherwise not have. That’s been a significant boon.

You write about vampires and werewolves, cosmic creatures and the undead, yet somehow the underlying focus of your stories seem to be about everything BUT the supernatural parts.  What fostered your interest in marrying the intensely human with things that dwell in the realms of the fantastical?

I think it was all those years spent reading everything but fantasy and horror, reading Carver and Annie Proulx and James Salter. I really thought, for many years, that I was done with genre forever. I was just planting different seeds. This wasn't intentional or strategic at all; I was just reading what I loved. And that stuff all gets tossed around in the mixer. By the time I started writing again, I had rediscovered my love for the fantastic, and the idea of writing strict realism seemed limiting and dull. Like throwing a tarp over the most exciting part of your imagination. But I didn't want to abandon what I loved about realism either, and the way my emotions were so deeply engaged by those stories. I wanted to include everything I loved.

Staying with the thematic, guilt and regret are two major elements I picked up on in your stories, which are – for my money - what make some of your tales so incredibly gut wrenching.  That relatable human element.  Has it been a conscious choice to explore such things?  Have you ever been surprised by what you have said in a story, when you may had not meant to explore that when you first started the piece?

That’s a good question. It’s my belief that one of the best ways to write a strong story is to write about what shames you. God knows my life is heavily freighted with guilt and regret. I just decided to hit those areas hard. To try my best not to blink. I did sometimes, but other times I know I didn't, and I sent some of those stories into the world with a twinge of fear. I don’t know if I’ve ever surprised myself, but I have noticed themes that were not apparent to me until later on, sometimes pointed out to me by others. All my stories deal with parents and children, in some way; relationships between lovers are often doomed; and a reader recently asked me why I keep referencing teeth. I hadn't realized I did that until he said it. I still don’t know what that’s about.

In addition to the dynamics of adult and romantic relationships, parenting looms large in several of your stories, as well, including “You Go Where It Takes You,” “The Way Station,” and the title piece “North American Lake Monsters.”  Not to get too personal, but do you think being a single parent has brought this part of your life into your fiction?

There’s no question. Being a single parent has informed my fiction profoundly. Even when I consciously try not to write about parents and children, I find that it keeps creeping back in. The fear of failing in that responsibility is almost impossible to overstate, as I’m sure any parent knows. And of course you can’t help but fail, in a hundred minor ways, no matter how much you strive not to, and despite all your successes. That’s the heartache of it. You’re going to do damage, no matter what. It almost makes me afraid of what I’m going to find to write about when my daughter grows up and moves out on her own. Maybe cats.

I count “The Good Husband” as one of the darkest, and most startling short stories I have ever read, as well as one of the best.  How did you come upon the concept for this work?  To your knowledge, have other readers reacted the way I have?

That one gets some pretty strong reactions. I've had people cry at readings, which was somewhat alarming. It wasn't easy to write, in a couple of ways. The title provokes the natural expectation that it’s ironic, that the husband in the story isn't good at all. And while that’s part of the truth, it’s not the whole truth. I wanted to write about a man who is trying very hard to be good, but is going about it an a destructive way, whose love is actually making things worse. It was hard to achieve that balance. It was harder, personally, because it’s a subject I have some experience with, and writing about the very selfish feeling the husband has - maybe she can’t be fixed, maybe it really would be better for her if she killed herself - is one of those points of shame I was talking about. There’s nothing noble about that thought. It’s a gross, base thought. But I think it’s one a lot of people have. And the guilt that follows that thought can be destructive in its own right. I wanted to write about how love can distort you. The feedback has been generally pretty good on that one; it’s my favorite one in the book.

What do you want to impart with your work, and what do you want readers to take away after they've finished reading one of your stories/books?

I don’t sit down with the intention of imparting anything, really. I want to not waste the reader’s time. That’s my primary objective. There’s so much being thrown at us these days; we’re bombarded constantly with short story collections and with novels and ebooks and the promotion for all of it, there’s such a rattling clamor, that when someone actually sits down to read one of my own, my goal is for them to think that it was worth their time. For it to stand out somehow, and to linger in the memory. A reader deserves more than static.

What is your take on the current climate of Weird/Horror Fiction?  Do you think the emergence of many new small press outfits has helped or harmed the genre(s) overall?  To dig deeper into the corpse of a dead horse – and to rudely put you on the spot - what is your opinion on self-publishing?  Good or bad for the future of fiction?

I think weird/horror fiction is in the midst of a real renaissance, perhaps the most significant since the age of the pulps, which is nothing but good news. Small press has played a defining role. Not only does small press allow for more esoteric work to see print, it also provides a place for short fiction and novella-length fiction to thrive, which is the real life blood of this genre. Furthermore, it allows for some of the less well-known practitioners of the genre to return to print and be discovered all over again: Manly Wade Wellman, Clark Ashton Smith, Lucy Boston, Arthur Machen, Leigh Brackett, Karl Edward Wagner … all writers I’m able to read now thanks to the efforts of the small press. Weird fiction and horror fiction would be in a sorry state without it.

Self-publishing is not intrinsically good or bad. It’s just a tool, and can be put to use well or poorly. Most of what’s being done is wretched stuff, but that’s true of just about anything. Many fine writers, like Jeff VanderMeer and Rhys Hughes, have self-published at one point or another in their careers, too, to good effect. I think it’s good that the tool is there to be used; it’s just unfortunate that it’s so often used badly.

You have admitted in the past to being a “slow” (I hate to use that word), deliberate writer (although your pace seems to have picked up recently).  What is your daily/weekly writing schedule?  When do you prefer to write, and why?

I used to be very slow. I would average about a story a year. And it’s not as if I was laboring over every sentence for that length of time; I just wouldn't write for a good nine or ten months out of each year. Within the past couple of years, the pace has picked up considerably. That said, I don’t keep to a rigorous schedule. I’ll try to get in 500 words a day, which is a modest goal, and one I don’t always meet. But the words accumulate surprisingly quickly even so. I prefer to write in the mornings, with coffee at hand. My mind feels fresh, and I like the feeling of an open day ahead of me. It lets me feel unhurried, unpressured, which in turn helps me think. At night I’m usually very tired and I don’t often have the patience to write. I bring a notebook with me to work, and I’ll jot down some sentences or wrestle with a story’s problems when I get some downtime. Like most people, I guess, I just squeeze it in when I can.

What does winning your first Shirley Jackson Award mean to you?  You're also nominated for a World Fantasy Award, with some pretty stiff competition.

This is my actually my second one. My first came in the award's inaugural year, in the short story category for "The Monsters of Heaven". I lost a bunch between then and now, though, so it definitely feels good! Especially in this category, in a year when there was such an abundance of great collections of dark fiction. Aside from the ones on this ballot -- Michael Marshall Smith, Will Ludwigsen, Kit Reed, and Christopher Barzak (with whom I tied, and I was lucky to do so) -- there were outstanding books from John Langan, Caitlin R. Kiernen, Laird Barron, Lynda E. Rucker, Reggie Oliver, Mark Valentine, Karen Russell, Stephen Volk, Ramsey Campbell ... and that's just off the top of my head. It was truly an amazing year for short story collections in our field, and that Lake Monsters won is just a bit of luck.

Yeah, being up for the World Fantasy Award is kind of mind-blowing. My fingers are crossed, but that ballot is a killer: Caitlin R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, Reggie Oliver, and Rachel Swirsky. I can see anybody walking home with it. it's also up for the British Fantasy Award, which I'm really excited about. The British horror and dark fantasy scene is so exciting right now; I feel like somebody accidentally invited me to the cool kids' party. I'm happy to just sit in the corner and watch everybody circulate, and hope nobody notices that I don't belong!

Frankly, I'm just happy NALM is part of the conversation. It's already far exceeded my expectations. Anything from this point on is gravy.

What is next for you in terms of projects either on your plate or on the horizon?

Most of the stories I’m writing now are quite different from the ones in North American Lake Monsters. I want to stretch my boundaries a bit, try some new things. A lot of what’s coming is more influenced by pulp fiction and by comic books than by realism. I might lose some of my readership, but I hope most of them will come with me. I’m writing a novel set on Mars in 1930, which I hope to finish fairly soon. I've been working on a novella called “The Cannibal Priests of New England”, about which I hope to be able to announce some good news in the near future. There are two stories in Ellen Datlow anthologies which will act as lynchpins for larger works: “The Atlas of Hell” (Fearful Symmetries) and “Skullpocket” (Nightmare Carnival). Although both are pretty dark, they’re written to be fun more than anything else. I’m especially looking forward to expanding the universe of “Skullpocket”. I have a novella called “The Visible Filth” coming soon from This is Horror, and another one, as yet unwritten, due to the REMAINS imprint at Salt Publishing. And more ideas lined up, waiting their turn. There are days when it’s hard to think, because I want to write them all right now, at the same time. I’m really looking forward to it.

Thanks again for your time, Nathan, and best of luck in all of your future endeavors.  We will be watching closely.

Thanks so much, Ted!

Hands that crack walnuts, mind that cracks skulls


  1. This is a fantastic interview. I learned a lot about Nate I never knew. Loved this collection, and looking forward to much more from him in the future. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much for reading, and for the kind words, John.

      I think we're all waiting (im)patiently for more Ballingrud. No pressure or anything. Honest...