North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud, a Review

Pros: Masterful descriptions and characterisations. Haunting language.

Possible Cons: Open-ended story telling. This book is horror (various unpleasantries occur).

Whilst floundering in Internet quicksand, I stuck a foot into North American Lake Monsters: stories by Nathan Ballingrud. I clicked on the sample thinking the book described legends of “real” monsters, curious, having never heard of monsters prowling the lakes of my home Continent.

North American Lake Monsters turned out to be a collection of short horror stories. Now, I read horror infrequently, being a great big sissy pants who’s still skittering down dark halls, thanks to the 1990s movie The Ring. But the author’s descriptive power drew me into these stories which brilliantly reveal the small everyday horrors of American life: absent fathers, the missing child, homelessness, joblessness and daughters in their early teens. Nathan Ballingrud writes people we know. A few samples follow:

Dennis is one of those guys who has to talk about his fears, or they’ll eat him alive. He has to give a running commentary on every grim possibility, as if by voicing a fear he’d chase it into hiding.

His wife worked the crowd like a politician, steering newly-arrived guests toward the table and bludgeoning them with goodwill.

He hadn’t seen his father since he was a little boy, and the notion that he was growing into him, like a disease with a single prognosis, was hardly encouraging.

He knew every detail of her life, every dull complaint and every stillborn dream, and she knew his; but now he knew nothing. Every nerve ending in his body was turned in her direction, like flowers bending to the sun.

And the book conveys a distinct sense of place, mostly various gritty locals in the US:

All he can see through the trees is the pale wooden frame standing out against the sky like bones.

It smells like that huge bakery on MLK that he liked to walk past on mornings before the sun came up, when daylight was just a paleness behind buildings, and the smell of fresh bread leaked from the grim industrial slab like the promise of absolute love.

The collection includes a Lovecraftian tale set in the Antarctic, the setting slightly at odds with the book’s title. However, the protagonist hails from Boston, and the monster is battle-inspired post traumatic stress, a well known North American demon.

Many of these stories end without clear resolution, a feature that might bother some readers, but I found the open-ended closures haunting. Similarly, some protagonists mostly display low levels of personal insight, and don’t directly convey much wisdom. However, this absence of aphorisms allows the reader to reach their own conclusions.

Favorite quote: A pelican perches on a short pier, wings spread like hanging laundry.

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