North American Lake Monsters

North American Lake MonstersNorth American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud

My first exposure to the short fiction of Nathan Ballingrud was the story “You Go Where It Takes You,” which the late, lamented Scifiction published in 2004. I knew right away I was in the presence of a wild new talent in the field of horror and the dark fantastic. As it happens, “You Go Where It Takes You” is also the lead story in NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS, Ballingrud’s first story collection, and it sets the tone nicely.

Ballingrud is a master of writing everyday, blue-collar characters who have lost control of their lives. They’re often in dead-end jobs, living dead-end lives, just trying to make it through while knowing things aren’t going to get any better. An unexpected encounter with the supernatural, or perhaps more accurately the unknowable, acts as a catalyst to shake things up, but not always for the better. There’s a deep sense of melancholy and frustration in these stories, and happy endings are few and far between.

All the stories in NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS are excellent, but among my favorites are “Wild Acre,” which follows the sole survivor of a monster’s attack and the crushing guilt he carries with him, and”The Monsters of Heaven,” in which a grieving couple whose child went missing find what I can only describe as otherworldly solace. What makes Ballingrud’s writing so great is his understanding of humanity, his ability to write characters whose actions and emotions are grounded and realistic, rather than heightened in the way that so much speculative fiction offers. Here, the presence of the supernatural is often secondary to the characters themselves, totems meant to illuminate some defining part of them.

Nathan Ballingrud is an exceptional talent, one whom I hope will one day be spoken of in the same breath as classic masters like Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Clive Barker. It’s already clear to me that he belongs in the same category as new masters like Jeffrey Ford, Paul Tremblay, Laird Barron, Sarah Langan, Livia Llewellyn, John Langan, Veronica Schanoes, and Stephen Graham Jones. NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS is all the proof I need of that.

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