by Nathan Ballingrud
When Will discovers a cell phone after a violent brawl his life descends into a nightmare.
Affable, charismatic and a little shallow, he’s been skating across the surface of life in a state of carefully maintained contentment. He decides to keep the cell phone just until the owner returns and everything changes. Then the messages begin.
Will’s discovered something unspeakable and it’s crawling slowly into the light.
This novella is dark, weird and utterly compelling. Ballingrud is a superb writer. His debut collection, North American Lake Monsters, was brilliant, one of the best collections I’ve read in years – I reviewed that here. With this story, thanks to the novella length, his fiction is writ larger and proves to be equally excellent.That subtle touch is still there. Ballingrud’s eye for the flawed human in all of us is deeply in evidence. In truth, it’s a little hard to feel any kind of sympathy or compassion for any character in this story – they’re all dicks to some degree – yet the compulsion to see what happens to each of them is strong. Maybe because it’s hard to like them, we need to see what befalls them. The need to turn the page is irresistible. And being a novella, it’s an easy one-sitting read.
The horror here is squirmy and discomforting and almost entirely unexplained. Even at the end of the book you’ll have more questions than answers. I’d like to see this drawn out to novel length, to see where Ballingrud could take the badness in this yarn and develop it. But you’ll get to the end of this and it’ll stay with you. You’ll need to mull it over and it won’t leave, like a stain on your mind you can’t wash off.
The ending is going to take me some time to come to grips with, but for harsh, unforgiving, realistic albeit often supernatural horror, this is setting a high bar. Just don’t expect clear resolutions! Highly recommended.