My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This collection of short stories by Nathan Ballingrud could also be called Deeply Troubled Men and the Monsters They Hang Out With. Each story chronicles men who are trapped in unhappy relationships, who are spiritually lost or battling booze, drugs and shambling horrors, which are sometimes also their wives. The writing is full and ripe, like a bloated watermelon sitting on a picnic table under the furnace glare of the late August sun, ready to explode in a gout of watery pulp. Ballingrud loves similes (and metaphors) the way a cat loves a mouse. Both are sought after and mauled with great enthusiasm.
Do you like a little humor sprinkled about to lighten the mood of otherwise grim, dark stories? You will find none here. These stories may vary slightly in tone but they are all very, very serious. Whether it’s a boy becoming a vampire or a man running from a werewolf, these tales are relentlessly bleak. Do you want sympathetic characters? That’s also difficult to find. Most of the men are detached, emotionally distant/stunted, often the source of their own troubles, with the horror elements used to highlight how terrible and flawed they are (“Wild Acre”, the aforementioned werewolf story, is a good example of this, as the werewolf amounts to little more than window dressing for a story about a troubled man and his ongoing financial and marital problems, made worse because, well, werewolf).
The closing story and one exclusive to this collection, “The Good Husband” can be read as darkly humorous, given the increasingly ludicrous turns the story takes. Perhaps I wasn’t correctly seeing the earnestness of the prose as very dry sarcasm. It didn’t help that the characters felt somewhat unreal throughout (more understandable with the wife, with her being dead/not quite dead). Still a great premise, though.
There is no denying Ballingrud’s skill at creating evocative imagery (if sometimes going a bit further than needed) but after awhile I began to weary of reading about these very flawed, troubled, yet strangely uninteresting people. Maybe not caring about them makes ME the monster. Twist ending!
Also, if Ballingrud ever teamed up with Laird Barron, they should totally bill themselves as The Brothers Grim.