Monsters Literal and Figurative
by Jon Michaud
In this month's Book Drop column, Jon Michaud tries to escape the political season with Nathan Ballingrud's collection North American Lake Monsters. Does our heroic librarian manage to forget the election or does he end up reading allegory? Read this months Book Drop to find out!
The world is scary enough right now, but Halloween is upon us and I’ve lately been in the mood for fictional monsters to offer some escape from the real ones we read about in the newspaper every day. On the recommendation of my friend and fellow librarian, Josh Hanagarne, I borrowed the Center’s copy of North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud. It was an unsettling reading experience that I haven’t been able to shake in the days since. Ballingrud’s book is especially resonant at this moment because many of its characters hail from the quadrants of American society that make up the base of Donald Trump’s campaign: disaffected rural and southern whites still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. In short, my attempt to escape the tensions of the election season backfired, sending me headlong into the very anxieties that are manifesting themselves in the campaign every day.
Ballingrud’s stories are marketed as “dark fiction,” but many of them are really the latest flowering of the deep-rooted Southern Gothic tradition. What distinguishes his work from traditional horror fiction is the way its elements of violence and terror are submerged within a world of plainspoken naturalism. There is a restraint in Ballingrud that puts the onus on the reader’s imagination to supply many of the gruesome details. One reviewer suggested that his work is a hybrid of Raymond Carver and H.P. Lovecraft. This gives you the general idea, but I kept hearing echoes of Breece D’J Pancake, the gifted short story writer from West Virginia who took his own life in 1979 at the age of 27, before his first (and only) book was released. Pancake’s coal country denizens eked out hardscabble lives against the backdrop of economic failure and environmental disaster. His story, “Time and Again,” about a snowplow driver with a macabre secret, is a direct precursor to the chilling tales in Ballingrud’s book.
Though they are set farther south, on the Gulf Coast and in the Carolinas, the stories in North American Lake Monsters feature a cast of economically stunted protagonists reminiscent of Pancake's: a single mom who works as a waitress; a high school dropout who washes dishes in a New Orleans restaurant; a small-time contractor who goes broke in the wake of the housing bubble. In each case, it is the lack of financial resources that puts these characters in the path of something strange or occult. The contractor, defending his half-built houses from vandals, encounters a beast that may or may not be a werewolf. The waitress ends up going home with a customer who literally changes skins.
The dishwashing dropout mentioned above—his name is Nick—comes to us in a story called “S.S.” Nick is forced to quit school and find work when his mother is badly injured in a car accident. His father left when he was four and this description of the way young Nick processes the abandonment is a good example of how Ballingrud’s stories work:
Nick’s mother used to say that they’d lost his father to the horses.
Throughout his childhood, Nick thought that meant that he’d been killed by them: trampled beneath a galloping herd, or thrown from the back of a bronco; when he was younger still, he imagined that they’d devoured him, dipping their great regal heads into the open bowl of his body, lifting them out again trailing bright ropes and jellies. At night, when the closet door opened, the boogeyman wore an equine face, and the sound that spilled from its mouth was the dolorous melody of his mother’s sobs. Even now that he knew better, knew that his father had fled in part because of gambling debts incurred at the track, horses retained their sinister aspect.
Nick gets involved with a girl named Trixie who lures him into the orbit of a group of violent neo-Nazis. Motivated less by bigotry than by boredom and a need to flee his miserable situation, Nick contemplates going through with the gang’s initiation rite by killing an African-American co-worker. In the climactic scene of the story, he and Trixie are on the highway to the co-worker’s house when a horse trailer crashes in front of them, spilling its four-legged cargo onto the pavement. Nick takes it upon himself to put the suffering animal out of its misery. At the same time, he is executing the equine ghosts that have haunted his childhood. This motion from the figurative to the literal occurs often in Ballingrud’s work. In “You Go Where It Takes You,” the story about the contractor, the wolf at the door of those unfinished houses is more than just a figure of speech.
In an interview with Weird Fiction Review, Ballingrud said that his goal in this book was “to write about people we’re conditioned to regard as contemptible… and [to] get to their humanity. If I can get the reader to feel some empathy for somebody on the cusp of joining a white supremacy movement … or a man who turns his back on his mentally ill wife, then I’ve succeeded…. [W]e live in a society that encourages us to view each other in simplistic and tribalistic terms and that leads to an erosion of empathy, which is destructive to the human condition—to our ability to live in an integrated society.”
That interview was published in 2013, but, like Ballingrud’s stories, it speaks directly to what’s happening right now.
The Book Drop is a monthly column of thoughts, trends, and tidings from the desk of our librarian, Jon Michaud.
Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel.
You can find him on twitter @jonmichaud