There is a moment at the end of the eponymous story in Ballingrud’s collection where our principal character, Grady, returns to the implacable corpse-thing he and his daughter discovered the day before on the lake shore. Previously, the dead thing resembled “a huge, suppurated heart”; very much not-alive but identifiable as once having organic life. When Grady observes it a second time, he sees now that “Life [is] abound here: small chitinous animals hurried busily to and fro, conducting their miserable business in tunnels and passageways in the body”. Where the alien corpse may once have occupied some iteration of life, it now instead provides the basis for another. This reassessment of uses of the monstrous and fantastic is key to Ballingrud’s collection of nine weird/horror/supernatural tales, where, along with the varying degrees of human tragedy, loss and disappointment already haunting the lives of the protagonists, into narratives are ushered ‘abnormal’ phenomena. And with these strange arrivals, an unexpected time for reflection and attempts at redemption.
As well as comparisons with Lovecraft, Ballingrud’s stories have been compared with the ‘dirty realism’ of Raymond Carver. Whilst some aspects of the characters’ lives might echo Carver at times (fractured family units; ineptitude of the struggling modern male figure; alcoholism; humble yet futureless small town America), Ballingrud instead abandons the ambiguity and privacy of Carver. If it’s possible to make the ambiguous and utterly alien transform into unambiguous and familiar there on the page, Ballingrud seems to achieve it in North American Lake Monsters.
There are holes in the lives of this collection’s populace. Chasms. Gravity-defying rifts. Into these holes are suddenly found the unimaginable, and more importantly, the unexpected. The phenomena that fill these gaps allow the characters to take a closer look, to disentangle something for the first time since their lives became such a mess.
In The Monsters of Heaven, Brian and Amy’s life has been torn to shreds by the death of their young son. They live and grieve in notably Carver-esque domesticity (“a pre-fab bungalow with an American flag out front and a two-door hatchback in the driveway”), and Amy is having an unhidden affair. The couples’ failing ability to comfort one another is interrupted by the arrival of “angels”, as reported on national news. These sickly, brittle creatures are presented as essentially harmless, but are nonetheless attacked and often killed by people who fear the unknown. Brian, lead by grief, brings an injured one home in a delirious attempt to help heal his marriage. The result is a strange sexual odyssey, where a return to physical marital love is equated to discovering the benefits of, well, bringing an alien into your home. But, for Brian and Amy, it works in a most unexpected way.
In Sunbleached, Joshua, a young boy, discovers a vampire under the crawlspace of the family home. (Vampires, unlike most other phenomena in these stories, already exist in the world, clearly. This is an intelligent take on Ballingrud’s one specific genre story; there are enough vampire stories out there, so they might as well be as real as anything else.) Joshua listens to the philosophical musings of the vampire – a creature who experiences so much hostility from the natural world that philosophy seems to be the only thing it they share with humanity. The vampire occupies the hole in the family life made by the absent father, and it is intending to get in through just such a hole.
Unlike the strange redemption through the angel in The Monsters of Heaven, Sunbleached addresses the infection of grief and how it is possible to completely lose an entire family to despair. The vampire embodies another theme in the collection; that of visitation.
The arrival of someone (or something) into a life, which changes everything, is also addressed in You Go Where It Takes You; into the uneventful life of waitress Toni walks Alex, an off-shore oil rig worker. From the boot of his car, Alex presents Toni with a “tanned and cured hide of a human being”. He tells her that “They’re so you can be somebody else.” After this visitation, Toni enters a new life, on the road, abandoning all that she was previously part of. Although Toni’s decision means she is utterly abandoning her old life, including her own child, there is something redemptive in her actions. There are no half measures after seeing what she has seen, and taking things from there is the only way forward. In You Go Where It Takes You, what at first is the macabre image of the human skin-suit, in the next glance becomes the doorway to another life (if not simply another existence.) The story ends with Toni herself becoming the visitation into another world.
Unlike the stumbled-upon and mortally-feared monstrous perpetually littering Lovecraft, the stories in North American Lake Monsters gives its phenomena a new dimension. The way the creatures in these stories occupy a liminal internal-external space (whether external, as in outside the relative safety of the home, or internal after having been brought in). The private and the public become merged together. Each character in Ballingrud’s collection already has their own private (internal) demons, but the phenomena infiltrating these narratives break down the walls between the outside and in, making the reader watch a character’s initial repulsion, but eventual transition into the realm of the monstrous. Given the clear entrapment of these characters’ lives, it is understandable to sympathise that redemption might well lie with the unknown.