by Nathan Ballingrud
Published July 2013
Trade cloth: 9781618730596
Trade paper: 9781618730602
Small Beer Press
I’ve never come across the short fiction of Nathan Ballingrud before, but when this book was released I saw a sudden buzz around my social media feeds. I always pay attention to that sort of activity, so I picked up a copy of the ebook. Having just finished reading it, I went straight back to the Small Beer Press and ordered the Trade cloth edition. This is a book that needs to stand proud on a bookshelf.
There are nine stories in this debut collection from Ballingrud and each one of them is amazing. There is not a low point anywhere in this book. Balligrud’s writing is both beautiful and unrelenting, artistic and brutal. The same can be said for every story and every character. He draws on pain for his work, whether that pain is a lost young white supremacist, a broken down waitress, a man who recently got out of jail and doesn’t know his daughter any more, a man who lost his child, a husband who has become increasingly disconnected from his wife who suffers terrible depression and regularly attempts suicide. Against those characters of raw realism and terrible everyday struggle, Ballingrud draws the most incredible supernatural and horrific environments in which to put those people. The crass, the ugly, the brutal, the terrifying. It exists in every inch of every story and the characters reflect their terrible situations as much as those situations reflect the characters.
And yet, while I might make it sound horrendously bleak by the above description (and believe me, it often is!) it’s also sublimely beautiful, in both idea and execution. This book contains one of the most amazing vampire yarns I’ve ever read. Also one of the best werewolf stories and, at a stretch, the best zombie story ever. It’s not a zombie story in the Romero tradition, but even so. It’s better than that. More subtle, more heartbreaking. I’ve also read several stories based around the horror of New Orleans and Katrina, but Ballingrud’s The Way Station blows them all away. And there’s a touch of Cthulhu mythos in this book, equally well handled.
There are no answers here, no happy endings. Some stories are left hanging, almost too soon, but only better for that. There’s no suggestion of a way out of the darkness drawn by these tales, whether that’s the darkness of Elder gods, blood sucking vampires or humanity’s incredible ability to care so little for its fellows. Yet for a book with such a diverse eye for monsters and the supernatural, the overall sensation left after reading is one of humanity. Which should ever be the root cause of horror writing, that exploration of the truly dark nature of the human, in the face of monsters or of themselves.
Ballingrud’s touch is light, his implications subtle. For that reason, the moments of stark and visceral horror have all the more impact. This is without a doubt one of the best short fiction collections I’ve ever read. Not for the faint of heart, but worth the trauma for the incredible writing, absolutely real characters and palpable sense of wonder that comes from every touch of the unnatural along the way. This book is a dark road, emotionally battering and utterly incredible. I can’t recommend it highly enough.