North American Lake Monsters, by Nathan Ballingrud

northamericanlakemonstersTitle: North American Lake Monsters

Author: Ballingrud, Nathan (Author’s Website)

Genre: Horror, short stories

Bibliographic: Small Beer Press, 205 pages, Paperback List Price $16.00, Audiobook List Price $19.95, ISBNs 9781618730596, 9781618730602, 9781618730619

Publication Date: July 16, 2013

Rating: ★★★★☆/♥♥♡♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Haunting, disturbing, melancholy, lyrical

Why I picked it up: It’s almost October, so I was in the mood for something spooky, and I head that this collection was absolutely terrifying.

S.I.A.S.: This creepy short story collection examines monsters and love.

Summary: This is a collection of short stories. The summaries of each are:

  • “You Go Where It Takes You:” Toni is a burned-out waitress with a holy terror of a daughter named Gwen, and Gwen’s father is out of the picture. One day, a man named Alex comes into Toni’s restaurant. They get to talking, and Alex admits that he’s on the run because he stole a car from someone truly bad. Toni invites Alex back to her place, where he reveals why he thinks the car’s original owner was evil and Toni starts to reconsider her life.
  • “Wild Acre”: Dennis, Renaldo, and Jeremy wait in a partially-constructed house to catch the vandals who have been plaguing this project, but only Jeremy makes it back down alive. The official report says it was a wolf that killed Dennis and Renaldo, but Jeremy knows better — he saw the creature, saw it as a human and after it had transformed. He has to deal with his friends’ deaths, and with the knowledge that he only survived because he chose to run away rather than shoot it.
  • “S.S.”: Nick is a dishwasher/prep cook who lives with his mother in a house in New Orleans and has recently dropped out of high school. His girlfriend Trixie wants to come over to his house, but first he has to go with her to what turns out to be a white supremacist meeting. He agrees, even though his mom is slowly eating her legs from the feet up.
  • “The Crevasse”: Garner is in Antarctica with a party of fourteen, which is delayed after one of their sled dogs fell into a crevasse in the earth. When Garner investigates, he finds a stairwell in the crevasse which clearly wasn’t created by humans — and whatever made it may still be inside.
  • “The Monsters of Heaven”: Brian dozed off one day at the park and when he woke up his four-year-old son Toby was gone. The police have no leads. His wife Amy blames him, and their marriage has deteriorated to the point where she no longer hides the fact that she’s having an affair. Then Brian finds an angel in the dumpster behind his local bar.
  • “Sunbleached”: A vampire has been hiding out in the space under Josh’s house for the last four days. Josh hasn’t invited it inside yet, and he won’t until it’s finished turning him, because he’s worried that it will kill his Mom and his five-year-old brother Michael — Josh only plans to let it kill his mom’s boyfriend. The vampire has other ideas.
  • “North American Lake Monsters”: Grady has just gotten out of jail, so he and his wife Tina and their daughter Sarah are vacationing together at the lake, where Sarah has just found a lake monster washed up on the shore. Grady touches it, but he can’t get his hands clean. Sarah wants to sketch it, so she goes to do so while Grady and Tina work out some of their marital problems.
  • “The Way Station”: Henry Beltrane is in a homeless shelter in St. Petersburg, Florida, but he’s haunted by pre-Katrina New Orleans. Literally — sometimes, a hole back to the city opens up in his chest. He wants to find his daughter, but a shelter volunteer named Davis wants to introduce him to a few other haunted people instead.
  • “The Good Husband”: Katie has made several suicide attempts over the years, and this time her husband Sean decides to let her succeed, since she’ll never be happy in life otherwise. After she kills herself, her body wakes up, but she can’t quite remember what she’s supposed to be.

Evaluation:  Like any short story  collection, North American Lake Monsters has its ups and downs, but overall I’d say this is a very good collection. The best story in the piece, at least in my opinion, is “Sunbleached” — I listened to the audiobook, and near the end of the story I literally stopped in my tracks and put my  hands over my mouth so abruptly that another walker stopped to ask if I was all right. “Wild Acre” and “You Go Where It Takes  You” are also particularly haunting stories; the latter is especially shocking because the scariest part of the story isn’t connected to the story’s supernatural element. I would say that the weakest story in the collection is “S.S.,” because there is a lot going on that doesn’t seem to go together well: the white supremacy meeting, Nick’s concern over losing his virginity, Nick’s mom eating his legs, and Nick’s ideas about horses all seem kind of jumbled together in a way that could have used a little more cohesion. “The Crevasse” was also somewhat awkward, in that it was clearly meant to invoke Lovecraft and fell just a little bit short. Even with those shortcomings, however, I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to fans of horror, weird fiction, or short stories. I seem to know a lot of people who say they’d like to read more short stories, and I think this might be a good collection for that, since it’s fairly short and even the worst of the stories are still pretty good.

As I mentioned, I listened to this as an audiobook and heartily enjoyed it. The entire collection is narrated by one person, a gentleman named Travis Young, but he does a good job with all of the stories — each character speaks in his or her own voice, and there were no repeats, as far as I noticed. He has a slight southern drawl which works well since most of the stories are set in the South, and he does change his voices to be regionally appropriate. Henry Beltrane, from “The Way Station,” is the most convincingly voiced character. I would give the narration here five out of five stars — it’s hard to imagine it being done better.

Significance: This is the first publication by Nathan Ballingrud.

Readalikes: She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Morena-Garcia and Paula R. Styles. Kissing Carrion, by Gemma Files. Bird Box, by Josh Malerman.

Discussion Questions:

  1. This collection has been advertised as containing monster stories and love stories that are disguised as monster stories. Do you agree with that assessment? Which of these stories could be about love?
  2. Which story was the scariest? Why do you think so? Was it your favorite in the collection?
  3. Many of the stories in North American Lake Monsters, such as “You Go Where It Takes You” and “S.S.” are more about the horror that humans can do to each other than the supernatural. Do you think that all humans have the capacity for evil?
  4. Did any of the stories leave you wanting more? Which, if any, would you most like to see expanded into a full novel?
  5. Which character did you most identify with? Could you see yourself making similar choices in any of these situations?

Lists and Awards:  Shirley Jackson Awards: Single-Author Collection (2013).

Professional Reviews: Kirkus. i09. LA Review of Books. BoingBoing. Weird Fiction Review.

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