Review of Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters

When I first picked up this book in Asheville’s Malaprops bookstore, I thought it was a collection of literary short fiction. Then a man stepped out of his skin in the first story and I began to doubt my assumption. North American Lake Monsters a collection with some solid horror staples—werewolves, vampires, the lake monster—taken very, very seriously.

Someone said the difference between genre and literary fiction is that genre exists for the reader, molding itself to her preconceived notions of the plot and characters, while literary fiction stems from the writer, who makes the reader empathize with a character who is not so predictable. Not that it’s about whether a character is predictable or not—it’s about meeting the character on his own ground.

In Ballingrud’s work, the monsters are secondary to the very human characters. Make no mistake, these are scary stories (the other difference between genre and literary fiction is apparently nightmares.) But they are scary because he portrays his characters with brutal honesty. Self-destructive neuroses, violent alcoholism, addicted poverty, and the grip of suicidal depression are monsters without claws and teeth. They roam whether it’s a full moon or not. They undeniably lurk under our cultural/ societal bed.

When the monsters do show up, they work really well. It’s been a long time since I read about werewolves and vampires, and the written word allows them a great deal of visceral, bone-crunching sensory realism. Ballingrud seems to take delight in the muscular violence of the werewolf in “Wild Acre” and the burned-out, Bourbon-street gentleman vampire in “Sunbleached.” He certainly has the skill to bring them to life.

Perhaps it’s a pitfall of horror that we have so many shorthand monsters. Ghosts show up to make us deal with the past, vampires with sex, zombies with apocalypse and our own conformity. Sometimes backing away from those tropes allows for something truly terrifying. The two scariest movies I’ve ever seen are Antichrist, which creates dread through nature and surreal presentation, and the Japanese Pulse which hardly needs to use its ghosts, so well does it bend technology to its themes of death, apocalypse, and loneliness. I give these examples to explain how sometimes the best metaphor is one that gets at the theme from a slant.

Lake Monsters’ final story, “The Good Husband” does this beautifully. Something from traditional horror tropes does happen, but in such an unexpected way that I was forced to interpret as I went, dreading what might come even as I experienced the hell that story puts its characters through. It’s a harrowing experience, but a profoundly humanizing one.

That story works because it holds its hand close. It’s one of those wonderful refractions of metaphor—it can potentially mean so much, but you can’t nail it down to a single connection. A few of Ballingrud’s stories fall into the trap of allowing the metaphor to be too obvious. A man who changes skin catalyses a woman’s drastic change of life; a hideous lake monster washes ashore as a convict gets out of prison to be with his family. These stories work interestingly with their horror-borrowed elements, but aren’t as powerful as “The Good Husband” or “The Monsters of Heaven,” in which the metaphor is nicely obtuse to the characters’ conflict.

Have a read of North American Lake Monsters if, like me, you love short stories and can easily spent hours looking at cryptozoological entries on Wikipedia. These stories are intense, dark, but deeply human, using the tropes and trappings of horror to get into the real monsters—those that live in our own neighborhoods, and our own minds.

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