Tag Archives: ghosts

Creatures of a Different Sort in Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters

lakemonsterscover1Nathan Ballingrud is an author who I’ve been reading about for a long time — largely via reviews of his stories in various anthologies — but who I had not, up until now, actually read.  Small Beer Press has helped to correct that oversight by publishing the Ballingrud collection, North American Lake Monsters (ebook $9.95; trade paperback $16; hardcover $24).

The book gathers nine stories, one of which appears for the first time here. There are a wide variety of themes and styles represented, but every tale is smart and stylish, and the stories are often more about the wider repercussions of a supernatural situation — like the ripples emanating from a rock dropped in water — than directly dealing with an attack or an encounter.

“You Go Where It Takes You” is the first story in the book and it’s one helluva leadoff hitter, starting as a somewhat folksy tale about Toni, a waitress and single mother, who winds up taking home an offbeat customer named Alex. The story takes a turn for the strange when Alex confesses that he’s driving a stolen car, and insists on showing Toni what he’s found in the trunk, which is some surreal cargo indeed. Convinced that he’s being pursued, Alex soon moves on, but his impact on Toni continues to resonate, leading to a devastatingly sad ending.

In “Wild Acre” a construction site for spec homes, bordering on wilderness, is marked by repeated acts vandalism.  In response, the owner of the construction company, Jeremy, and a couple of his employees spend a (drunken) night at the site in order to guard it. The violent attack — from what may be a werewolf — that ensues leaves one of them dead, but it’s not so much the attack that is the the focal point of the story as it is the fallout from that night. Ravaged by the memories of his inaction on that fateful night, his company forced out of business, Jeremy is a haunted man, dreading even his wife’s holiday party:

“Jeremy supposed that a Christmas party full of elementary school professionals might be the worst place in the world. He would drift among them helplessly, like a grizzly bear in a roomful of children, expected not to eat anyone.”

Blue-collar protagonists are a staple of Ballingrud’s work, and in “S.S.” that role is filled by Nick, a high school dropout working as a restaurant dishwasher. Stumbling towards acceptance in a white supremacist gang, Nick’s dismal existence is complicated by the bizarre yearnings of his elderly, infirm mother. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this particular tale, but it’s dark and disturbing nonetheless.

“The Crevasse,” co-written with Dale Bailey, expertly utilizes its Antarctic setting, as a scientific expedition stumbles upon something vast and Lovecraftian beneath the ice, although some members of the group are unwilling to admit what they’ve seen.  In “The Monsters of Heaven,” the sudden appearance of strange creatures that are referred to as angels — and of one such creature in particular — helps to fill the gap left in one couple’s life by the disappearance of their son. But this is no feel-good story — the specifics of just how the “angel” fills that gap are…disturbing (there’s that word again).

Ballingrud turns his eyes to vampires in “Sunbleached,” and, fortunately, it’s a refreshingly offbeat take.  Joshua lives in a hurricane-damaged house with his mother and younger brother…and, lately, with a sunburnt vampire hiding in the crawlspace beneath the house. Joshua tries to manipulate the weakened vampire into doing his wishes, but he soon finds he has underestimated the danger lurking below.

A hurricane also figures in “The Way Station,” wherein progatonist Beltrane is aging, homeless, and more lost than ever after Hurricane Katrina. This story is something of a departure from the other tales here, a surreal saga of a haunting, by the ghost of New Orleans itself.

“The hole in his chest reaches right through him. Gas lamps shine blearily through rain. Deep water runs down the street and spills out onto his skin. New Orleans has put a finger through his heart.

“Oh, no,” he says softly, and raises his eyes to his own face. His face is a wide street, garbage-blown, with a dead streetlight and rats scrabbling along the walls. A spray of rain mists the air in front of him, pebbling the mirror.”

“The Good Husband” is a heart-wrenching story of a husband who, weary of his wife’s suicide attempts and convinced that she will never know happiness, chooses to let her succeed with her latest attempt.  But his decision comes back to haunt him when she comes back from the dead, although it’s a temporary return, as she is slowly, inexorably pulled toward the soft whisper of the grave.

North American Lake Monsters is a diverse, highly-engaging collection from a grossly under-appreciated author.  Hopefully this collection is the first step towards rectifying that.

Digging up skeletons in the basement with Gary McMahon’s The Bones of You

thebonesofyou_lgGary McMahon is a UK author whose career I’ve watched progress with interest over the last few years. (I earlier reviewed the chapbook Thin Men With Yellow Faces, which he co-authored with Simon Bestwick.)  McMahon here offers the latest installment in Earthling Publications’ series of annual Halloween books, the short novel The Bones of You (500 signed, numbered hardcovers; $45).

Adam Morris is a recently divorced forklift driver who’s just moved into a house that he hopes will be a warm and welcoming home for his daughter Jess when he has custody of her. At his core, Adam is a good, decent man, but life’s rough edges and  hard knocks have left him with a cynical, world-weary perspective:

“Didn’t I deserve a normal life; one like other people enjoyed? Wasn’t I good enough for that? …Life was hard, people were often harsh, and everybody had their own problems. These problems were mine — I had created them. Nobody had forced me to take up with an addict and have a child with her. I had made my own decisions, followed the paths I had chosen…”

Adam’s jaded yet still occasionally hopeful outlook, backed by McMahon’s trenchant observations and adroit phrasing, make for some memorable passages, several of which I’ll be quoting here.

Not long after moving into his new rental, Adam discovers that the house next door has a decidedly sordid history, being the former residence of Katherine Moffat, a serial killer of children who committed her crimes in the basement of that now-abandoned house. Boarded up and cloaked in darkness, the house lurks on the periphery like a shadowy character:

“I glanced again at the house next door, wondering what might be hiding in its dark interior. Could badness be stored, like preserves in glass jars? Perhaps if I went in there, I’d find row upon row of containers, each one containing a small sin.”

Adam’s focus is on giving Jess as normal and happy a childhood as he can, but various complications enter his life, such as the goth girl who he finds one night loitering around the old Moffat house, or his coworker Carole, with who he become intimate, against his better judgment.

It’s also worth noting that, roughly halfway through the book, there are hints of a devastating past episode, involving Adam and his ex-wife, that threatens to undermine everything we think we’ve learned about Adam. To say more would be to risk a spoiler, so I’ll just note that the revelation — or is it a red herring? — is given a gradual and very effective reveal.

Meanwhile, something supernatural seems to be stirring next door. And through it all, Adam’s point of view doesn’t exactly brighten:

“Bad news usually comes to us in the times when we least expect it, when we start to think that things might turn out okay. These are the most dangerous times, when we start to glimpse the light of a new dawn, when we allow that light to warm us and make us think that good times are just around the corner.”

and:

“I knew there was more tragedy to come. All I had to do — all I ever had to do — was stand and wait for it to find me. I sensed the dark movement around me; just one of a myriad dark movements, all working in unison. The machinery of night was moving up a gear. If I didn’t act, I would be crushed by the darkness.”

All these well-turned passages that I’ve quoted serve as building blocks for a novel that’s richly atmospheric without sacrificing pace…but despite all that, there are a couple cracks in the foundation. If I had to guess they’re the result of rushing to finish the book and meet a deadline, and they certainly aren’t fatal flaws, but I couldn’t help but notice them.

First, there are two descriptions of how Halloween is viewed in the UK, both from Adam’s perspective, some 40 pages apart, which seem very much at odds with each other:

“…Halloween was a growth industry these days: there was a whole Americanization of the day happening, to the extent that it was even called a holiday. When I was a child, it was a low-key affair… It was all different now: decorations in windows, pumpkins on sale in all the shops, expensive costumes, and the call of Trick or Treat drifting through the towns and villages of the country.”

vs.

“Halloween wasn’t a date I’d ever given much thought… This wasn’t America: despite increasingly desperate attempts by the supermarket chains and toy companies, on a cultural level Halloween was still a relatively low-key celebration. We simply didn’t make that big a deal out of Halloween in England.”

Given that this is, after all, a novel in a series of books about Halloween, such an inconsistency jumped out at me.

Second — and this one is harder to describe without having to declare “spoiler!”, but here goes — a reference is made to the car of a character who later…disappears, but then no further mention is made of that car, which would very much need to have been disposed of, to avoid the scrutiny of the authorities. Failing to at least mention how the car was dealt with stood out like a sore thumb.

But these problems are minor in the overall scheme of things. The Bones of You is compulsively readable, and every bit as dark as you’d want a Halloween horror novel to be.

Mark Morris’ It Sustains Has True Staying Power

it-sustains-signed-jhc-by-mark-morris-1707-pBritish author Mark Morris has been at it now for longer than I care to think (a comment on my age, not his talent), with nearly 20 titles published since his debut, Toady, appeared in 1989.  His latest, It Sustains, from Earthling Publications, sports an Introduction by Sarah Pinborough and a gorgeous cover illustration by Edward Miller; more importantly, it’s a taut, coming-of-age novella that winds up going places you probably won’t expect.

Fifteen-year-old Adam is living a fairly normal, happy life in the small village of Stretton Mere, where his father and mother own and operate the Maypole pub. That idyllic existence is destroyed when a group of drunks, angry over their expulsion from the pub, return to the scene looking to cause some damage but wind up killing Adam’s mother.

The meaning of the book’s title is revealed in the following passage, describing a half-hearted, or even mocking, message from one of Adam’s mother’s killers.

Just before the funeral we got a card from Danny Thorpe, white with a silver dove on the front — In Deepest Sympathy.  Inside the card he had written: ‘So sorry to hear about what happened. A terrible loss.  But ultimately it is love, not grief, that sustains.’

Seeking a new start, or at least fewer painful memories, Adam’s father moves the two of them several hours away, to operate another pub.  But placing many miles between them and their tragedy not surprisingly fails to blunt the emotions of their recent tragedy. In the following scene, Adam hears his father, who’s been pretty hard on Adam, while seemingly staying strong himself in the face of the tragedy, unburdening himself of his pain in private.

…I hear sobbing.

It’s not much, little more than a whimpery hitching of breath, but it is this very thing — this stifled, exhausted quality — that makes it seem so desolate.  It is sobbing without hope, without release; it is sobbing in the knowledge that it won’t make you feel even the slightest bit better afterwards — and it is that that makes it scary.

Haunted by memories and regret, Adam begins to be plagued by unsettling dreams and visions… and the irretrievable loss of innocence, as captured here:

…what he has now been reminded of, in the cruelest way possible, is that life is temporary and fragile, that each day we step out onto thin ice that will eventually, inevitably, splinter beneath us, and that, contrary to what we are told as children, there are no happy endings.

At the same time, he faces far more commonplace complications for someone his age — a growing attraction to schoolmate Adele, and confrontations with bullies, followed by initiation into their “gang,” and brushes with the law.

It Sustains is a powerful tale, full of sadness, despair and unexpected plot developments…but the final plot development may be just a little too unexpected.  Meaning that there’s no justification or rationale presented for a twist that seems decidedly different from what’s come before.  Not that I want or expect rationalization for everything — I have plenty of appreciation for ambiguity and the unexplained — but in this case, the change was sufficiently out of left field to leave me feeling off balance.  Nonetheless, the surprising finale of It Sustains serves to detract only a bit from the substantial strengths of this fine novella.

Quick Take: Ronald Malfi’s Via Dolorosa

Having read and enjoyed several earlier titles by the prolific Ronald Malfi  — namely The Passenger, Floating Staircase, and Skullbelly — I was quick to request a review copy of Via Dolorosa when I saw it listed among the first batch of titles from new publisher Abattoir Press.  The book’s title sounded familiar to me, and I soon found out why: the Abattoir edition is a reprint, as the book was originally published by Raw Dog Screaming in 2007.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Via Dolorosa largely reads like exactly what it is — a book written earlier in the author’s career, before he developed some of the skills he has today.

Set entirely in and around the gently decaying Paradis d’Hotel on Hilton Head island, Via Dolorosa does manage to achieve a strange, dreamy sense of timelessness — if not for the references made by protagonist Lieutenant Nick D’Nofrio to the war in Irqa, from which he has recently returned,I could have easily believed that the novel was set in any of several earlier decades.

D’Nofrio is the heart and soul of the novel, a man bothered by the serious hand injury he received in the war, but outright tortured by the memories of what happened there, and by one memory in particular.  The recently-discharged D’Nofrio and his new wife Emma are at the Hotel so that he can paint a mural, an opportunity for him to exercise his artistic talent, his wounded hand permitting.  Nick is increasingly haunted by a ghost from the war, his new marriage begins to fray at the edges, and his restlessness leads him into ambiguous, multi-layered relationships with a beautiful but manipulative Spanish woman, a bartender who’s also haunted by a death from his past, and the hotel’s bell captain, who happens to be the father of a soldier who served under Nick in Iraq.  Nick’s psychological trauma influences his behavior and surfaces in his mural, which starts to take on dark, morbid tones, without his even realizing it.

The main problem with Via Dolorosa is that, given the book’s length, precious little actually happens.  A great deal of time and effort is invested in trying to create atmosphere and mood, and the book is somewhat successful in that regard, but the overwhelming impression I got is that this is a book that’s trying very hard to be a literary novel, not a genre work…and the author doesn’t have the chops — at least at this particular juncture in his career — to pull it off.  The end result is slowly paced, relatively uneventful, and headlined by a moody protagonist who’s difficult to sympathize with.

I can recommend Via Dolorosa for Malfi fans who missed the earlier Raw Dog Screaming edition, but for those still awaiting their first exposure to the author, he has many other works that better showcase his abilities.