Top positive review
Excellence: Literary Realism meets the Profound Horrific
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 1, 2014
Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters seems to be best summarized a consist voice looking at the intersection of human tragedy with the arbitrarily alien. The monsters in Ballingrud’s stories are always on the peripheral and even when they enter directly, they are not the main focus of the tale. The South lingers in this book as does the recession, and being from the blue collar South of the US, Ballingrud’s world seemed as real to me, which I also sometimes inhabit.
The depressing mood of the book also mirrors a lot of literary realist and horror fiction, but likewise, these are as much stories of love and transformation as stories about monsters. All the love stories in the book are strained by things beyond any lake monster or vampire, but the occurrence of an outside force breaks the relationships up into their rawer elements. Also the looming monster of the novel is not only human, bestial, or supernatural, but also the economic circumstances that rendering things down to the bone.
Most of the stories have monsters, but not all of supernatural. “S.S.,” about a young man in poverty being recruited by a teenage call to a white power organization, has no supernatural element. The transformation is something you could find in Herbert Shelby, Jr. or Raymond Chandler as much as any genre fiction, and it was one of the most truly disturbing stories in the book. The masculinity of these stories is macho but broken and floundering about in some times tender and sometimes horrifying ways. This does create a weak spot in the book in terms of female characters, who do have lives of their own in most of the stories and who function within the limitations of their class, but with few exceptions cannot be fully realized because of the perspective of the narrator.
In stories like “The Way Station” and “The Crevasse” the natural world takes an equally horrifying role in the unsettling of individual lives. Indeed, Ballingrud’s one fault may be that he seems to portray the universe as almost a conspiracy against his already assaulted characters. Like Ogawa, Ballingrud suffers from understanding a pattern too well and the emotional impact of shattered lives can start to feel repetitive in the stories as a whole. It would help the reader to break up her reading of this collection so the pattern does not weaken the impact from over-exposure while keeping the stories fresh.
The two best stories in the collection in this reviewers opinion are “S.S.” and “Sunbleached.” The former I have already spoken about briefly. The later is another vampire story and one based on fairly conventional limitations to the genre, but the motivation and outcomes are entirely fresh. Casual misogyny, racism, and general unpleasantness invests many of the characters, even the jealous teen at the center of “Sunbleached,” but Ballingrud never denies the protagonists our sympathy nor does he make false excuses for them. Ballingrud is like a tragedian as much as weird fiction author: “the cosmos may be against you, but you are still responsible for your faults” is the droning reframe of his chorus.