Literary and Genre. For years and years, these two schools (or better yet, identities) of fiction have barked and cursed at one another across the great divide; argued on what the merits of literature should be, the quality of prose, and the elasticity of category and definition. They’ve bitched aplenty, trying to suppress the other with claims of pretentiousness, barbarism, putting up gated communities on hallowed grounds, and whoring prose for a paycheck. But in today’s culture of remixes and remakes, perhaps the great divide is shrinking, and as a result, this abrasive discourse between literary and genre is gradually becoming tempered, perhaps even unnecessary. In a publishing industry that doesn’t have the marathon legs it once had, maybe more readers and writers are recognizing that a story is just a story. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this battle will never end, and potentially flare up to Romulus vs. Remus proportions. Either way, right at this very moment, there’s some great work masterfully blurring the lines. After reading a book like Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, it’s evident that genre and literary can co-mingle, co-habitate, or even get drunk together, exchange passions and wake up in the morning with no regrets whatsoever. In the end, Ballingrud is doing what great writers should. And that’s not giving a damn about boundaries or rules, sculpting something that resonates, but at other times, stings. Now….
This is a collection of horror. Yes, there are monsters, but they are grotesque catalysts, symbolic terrors, to illuminate the human condition where heartbreak, bad decisions and guilt propel each bruised narrative. Ballingrud is not putting a new wig on an old trope and calling it new. Werewolves, zombies, vampires and aliens are all present (even a decomposing fresh-water beast rotting along a lake’s shoreline) – and while they are used to create unease, and more importantly, dread, they are not here to solely shock the reader. No cheap thrills in this collection. Ballingrud resonates the horror elements, and occasionally takes a rusty blade and severs a nerve – however nothing comes across as gratuitous. ‘North American Lake Monsters’ is so damn well realized. It is up on par with the great collections of Lucius Shepard (‘The Jaguar Hunter’), Dennis Etchison (‘The Dark Country’), John Cheever and Paul Bowles.
‘You Go Where it Takes You’ leads off the collection, reading like some strange hybrid of Raymond Carver and Clive Barker. About the desire to shed your skin and re-create your identity, it is a quiet nightmare of a tale, where the invisible chains of a working-class ‘pinch you pennies and hope for the best’ life suddenly snap in a boldly haunting way. One is left to wonder of the open road ahead, and what revelations, or horrors, will be encountered. It is a tale that is both heartbreaking and surreal. ‘Wild Acre’ uses the werewolf symbol, but delicately obscures that element in favor of telling the story of a dissolving marriage (a common theme here) in a small town losing hope amidst another economic downturn. ‘The Crevasse’ (co-authored with Dale Bailey) brings the action to the Arctic, and it is the most widescreen of all the works here; a well-paced tale of cosmic horror that not only reminds one of H.P. Lovecraft, but also of Jack London dipping his pen into the stirring, unknown cosmos. The pinnacle of the collection is ‘The Monsters of Heaven’. A couple suffer the death of their only child, and desperately trying to regain hold of their lives, fall into a scenario like no other. Alien beings are being discovered all over the country. They are being called angels because of their wide-eyed, luminous appearance. The main character takes one of these crippled beings into his home, and what happens next is truly bizarre — high on the charts of ‘What the fuck?’ brilliance. Rounding out the collection is a zombie tale, ‘The Good Husband’. At points strangely heartfelt, other times grotesque, this tale feels like an EC Horror comic being penned by Denis Johnson; or a revision of the old ‘Don’t Go in the Basement’ theme, where an odd pulp sentimentality flavors this narrative and makes it one of the more depressing entries in the collection.
I really look forward to what Ballingrud offers us next. In the end, call the book what you want. ‘Literary’ ‘New Weird’ ‘Horror’. But you’ll close the book feeling as though there’s not quite anything like ‘North American Lake Monsters’. Weird tales for the haunted, desolate heart, these stories won’t soon be forgotten.