|Cover by Pye Parr|
Very little of what is classified as horror fiction or contemporary Weird fiction scares me, and that's okay, because I don't read this style of literature to be frightened. I don't like to be frightened. Truly terrified. Who does, really, if we are being totally honest with ourselves? There are plenty of undertakings one can pursue if genuine fear (not thrills, or shock) is the end result, and I don't see me or anyone else I know heading down those paths, either in a literal or metaphorical sense.
Instead, I read this style of fiction for the wonder of it all, and while the atmospherics can sometimes be unsettling, they usually just end up being cool, or interesting, or awe-inspiring in their fantastical rendering. But in terms of true terror, that is reserved for the decidedly non-fiction realm of real life monsters that burn down villages and break into your homes and hunt women and defile children and devour innocence like they're on some sort of infernal time clock. For all but the true believers, supernatural fiction is fantasy, and fantasy is never scary, as how could something that is admittedly not real serve as a threat to the safety and well being of me and my loved ones?
But Nathan Ballingrud, who does write horror and Weird fiction as well or better than anyone else tapping the keys today, is straight-up scary. Not him personally, as he's a lovely fellow. But the people, places, and things he unleashes onto the page can often be horrifying in all the full-bodied definition of the word. And I like it. My Lord, do I ever like it.
Perhaps its the sense of authenticity of the characters and settings, both of which wear the weight of imperfection like a favorite pair of jeans. Most likely, this conjuring of discomfort from within the reader comes from the way deeply buried human flaws are exhumed, dissected, and laid bare to the humid air, then left there for all to witness, without apology. The abomination of the cut wide human soul. That's unsettling stuff, and that's what Ballingrud writes, like the Larry David or Ricky Gervais of dark fiction. Squirms coated with gooseflesh.
After wowing the horror fiction world in 2013 with the release of his debut collection North American Lake Monsters, which earned him nothing less than a Shirley Jackson Award and the fierce admiration of his peers, Ballingrud continues to build his lasting legacy of pitch black, uncomfortable fiction with his new novella The Visible Filth, published by This Is Horror (an outfit I hadn't heard of prior to ordering this book, but will return to as a customer based on the professionalism and care provided by owner and managing editor Michael Wilson). This is a taut story, shot through with suspense that binds together the strips of shapeless horror of seemingly everyday people and circumstances like a filthy quilt sew with piano wire.
The story is set in New Orleans, but it could be a slice of life in any city or small town where there are bars and college students and eroding relationships. And roaches. And cell phones. This is horror with a firm sense of place, but it is also universal enough that you can feel it churning on your neighborhood block. The evils done and the threats posed aren't ripped from a pulp mag. They could be taken from the morning paper, from text drenched in terrified mystery.
None of the four main characters are incredibly likable, nor fully happy, which seems an honest appraisal of life amongst twenty- and thirty-somethings dwelling in and around the bar scene, no matter the zip code. The leads are flighty and morose and devoted to self medication, spiritually empty in that vaguely nihilistic way of slacker narcissists. A love triangle threatens to destroy an already unstable square, but before this can happen, a random act of violence in a dingy barroom is all that it takes to link a hidden vein of depravity into the group, and plunge these players into a glistening black tunnel that unspools in front of them, the ghastly terminus unknown.
The Visible Filth, like much of Ballingrud's exceptional writing, is an exercise in indefinable - but somehow familiar - horror beyond our control, or even our explanation. Monstrous things are happening just below the veneer of normal life, and all you can do is watch. And you do watch, despite revulsion, and despite your shame. The fact that you like it unlocks something inside you, and you sit, at a bedside, the roaches gathering patiently, and you wait for what is coming.
Nathan Ballingrud is an American writer of horror and dark fantasy. His first book, the short story collection North American Lake Monsters, was published in 2013 by Small Beer Press to great acclaim, including winning the Shirley Jackson Award and being shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Bram Stoker awards. He lives in Asheville, NC, with his daughter.