Nathan Ballingrud’s debut collection of short stories sank its claws deep into my brain and refused to let go until I’d read the whole thing. He writes clear, powerful tales, where the monsters in question flush out his characters’ humanity in traumatic clarity. Most of these don’t end well, but they’re all gorgeous pieces.
Often, the obvious monster of the story is not the worst monster. Take, for example, the story “Wild Acres,” where an early, bloody attack suggests an obvious sort of supernatural tale. Yet Ballingrud doesn’t go down that road, instead taking the reader through the emotional consequences of surviving the ordeal and the choices made during such an event. Or the eponymous “North American Lake Monsters” itself, where an unidentifiable beast washes up on the shore of a lake and yet remains only a lightning-rod metaphor for the things going on within the family that discovers it.
[Personal note here: I read that story with a mixture of adoration and sadness, as I recently submitted a story that featured almost exactly the same situation. Ugh. The outcome in my tale was far different, but it’s still quite frustrating to be scooped on a story I really liked.]
In another standout piece, “Crevasse,” about a sled team in Antarctica running into trouble, Ballingrud manages to concoct a Lovecraftian story that challenges even the best of Lovecraft’s work.
My favorite story in the collection is, unexpectedly, “Sunbleached,” which is a story about a young kid’s relationship with a vampire in his basement. I’m sick to death of vampire tales, and yet this one bowled me over. The details were captivating, and I still can’t shake the ending.
This collection represents some of the finest literary horror I’ve read since devouring Shirley Jackson’s short stories. I’m an instant fan of Ballingrud, and North American Lake Monsters is a powerful, disturbing beast.