The first collection of short fiction by Nathan Ballingrud, North American Lake Monsters: Stories, is being published this July by the ever-delightful Small Beer Press. Ballingrud’s work has previously appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Ellen Datlow’s Teeth and The Naked City. This collection gathers together several of his published pieces—including Shirley Jackson Award winner, “The Monsters of Heaven”—as well as one story original to the volume, “The Good Husband.”
The publisher describes the collection’s thematic focus as “love stories … and also monster stories,” which matches my previous experiences of Ballingrud’s fiction: concerned with human relationships and their complexities, but also ominous and frequently dark in a way that I appreciate. Based on those past experiences, I’ve been looking forward to having a chance to read a collection of his work.
The first thing that occurs to me about North American Lake Monsters is that the collection encompasses a certain embodiment of masculinity: a masculinity borne of struggle and poverty, particularly Southern in inflection, fraught and ugly and complex in its brokenness. The word fraught is significant. This is not a comfortable read, and frequently the protagonists of these stories are full of problematic opinions and worldviews. At worst, they are the people whom most folks prefer not to think about or acknowledge as fully human, let alone take the time to submerge into their perspective. (One of the most challenging, for me, was “S.S.,” about a young man who is a neo-Nazi living in the South. Hair-raising, even.)
And yet, I find it intriguing to read stories that are so thoroughly invested in exploring and deconstructing the messiness of a very typical and widespread masculinity that is the source of so much trauma. These stories are not about good men—or, in the case of the opening story “You Go Where it Takes You,” good women—but they are, in a visceral way, about real men and real women who are broken and hateful, or at best just deeply of and in a problematic world that has taught them nothing else. That these all turn out to be horror stories, or stories in which something monstrous occurs, is par for the course: in the sort of “reap what you sow” world that these characters inhabit, there isn’t going to be a pleasant reward for their frequently unpleasant notions of gender, relationships, and self.
Many of the men in these stories have relationships with women that are, at best, strained—and at worst are abusive and awful. The women, through these protagonists’ eyes, are often inexplicable or equally broken, but regardless, very firmly Other. However, despite the fact that we are given most of these stories through the point of view of the male leads, because the stories are in third person the writer can sneak in details that preclude the reader’s agreement with the protagonist. For example, in “Wild Acre,” though the husband has a gulf of trouble understanding his wife, the reader does not: to my eyes, as I read the story, she seems to be trying very hard to make her marriage work and to understand her husband’s break with himself and society. The most troubling story, “S.S.,” revolves around the manipulative relationship between the protagonist and an older girl who is getting him in with her neo-Nazi associates. The story’s representation of her is both sympathetic—this is all she seems to know, and she does what she has to do, and also she is a teenager—and problematic, as she stands in mostly for an avatar of sexualized, tradable female flesh.
But, the story makes it clear that the role she has taken up is the only one she understands for herself: it’s what she’s been given by a culture that’s deeply, hideously misogynist, and she’s bought in. That’s the sort of way these stories tend to work—they’re brutally honest about contemporary society’s ugliest niches of prejudice, oppression, and the way oppression can in many cases breed not understanding but hatred for someone else, someone who can be labeled different.
In other stories, of course, it’s less about unearthing those frightening truths and more about exploring what it means to be broken by circumstances and trying to survive anyway. Two of these I’ve discussed before: “The Way Station,” originally published in The Naked City, and “Sunbleached,” originally published in Teeth. One deals with an older man who’s been haunted by his crumbling life and his experience of Hurricane Katrina; the other revolves around a teenage boy whose father has left and whose mother is dating again, and the relationship he develops with a vampire—a too-trusting relationship. Those are the two modes of North American Lake Monsters: both are honest and one is far more uncomfortable than the other, but together they paint a distinct portrait of the sort of world Ballingrud is exploring.
The weakness of this collection is that the typical shape of “a Ballingrud story” becomes a bit too obvious when read all at once: the stories will revolve around some sort of catastrophic event in a person’s life, work through some of the circumstances of that event, and end on a very open or loose note where resonance is the final effect rather than narrative closure. This is a shape that can be remarkably evocative; it’s also a shape that starts to feel repetitive after too many in a row. “The Crevasse,” for example, ends with the doctor thinking on the strange horrible thing he saw out on the ice; “North American Lake Monsters” ends with the father confronted by the glowing monster corpse and thinking about it. This isn’t a reflection on any single story—more the overall inevitable shape of the collection.
In the end, I feel rather torn about my reactions to this book. On the one hand, I find the explorations of a problematic but oh-so-real masculinity to be fascinating, but it’s a fascination with a dark edge, a discomfiting one. Because ultimately, in many of these stories, it is hard not to feel sympathy for the protagonists—despite their often casual sexism or outright misogyny, their racism, their monstrousness. These are people, the sort of people I encounter daily, the sort of people that I have known throughout my life, family and otherwise. They are terrible in their ways, to be sure, but they are also products of their circumstances.
And that, of all things, seems to be a vital takeaway from reading stories like this—stories that hurt and disturb, that put me firmly in the mindset of the sort of person who frightens me otherwise. It is easy to hate men like these when they are caricatures; it is harder to do so when, as in “North American Lake Monsters” or “S.S.,” their circumstances have so clearly and completely bounded them into their patterns of thought and behavior. Ballingrud tries to get the reader into the grungy, hard reality of life for his characters, one with boundaries made of poverty, ill-chance, lack, and hopelessness.
I think that it would be simple to read these stories and only acknowledge that they’re invested in a genuinely fucked up worldview. They do, in some real sense, make the audience complicit via the nature of narrative mechanism. But I also think that they’re doing that on purpose, and by dint of that effect they are doing far more than simply reflecting a point of view. They are exploring the crevasses of these perspectives and experiences and the damage that they can do to everyday people. (I also suspect that if they were merely reflecting this sort of thing without question or acknowledgement of how fucked up it is, the outcomes for the characters wouldn’t be quite so awful.)
In speculative fiction, we read quite a lot about heroes, or people who are temporarily down on their luck—but we’re much less willing to spend time with those who are always out of luck, and whose lives have been ground down by the system that we are attempting to survive in. I appreciate Ballingrud’s grim, dismal explorations of survival, identity, and a particular kind of masculinity throughout the course of this collection. This isn’t a book for everyone—fraught, remember?—but for those willing to go down the dark road that’s laid out here, and those willing to feel complex patterns of sympathy, disgust, and horror for (often bad) people, this is an interesting collection. Uncomfortable a read as it is, it has the tinge of reality to it: a reality that often we’d rather not look at.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.