From a non-American perspective, I’ve always found the unique weirdness of small-town America a fascinating subject, and an excellent basis for tales of the dark, the strange and the downright freaky. ‘North American Lake Monsters’ by Nathan Ballingrud is a collection of nine short stories which, for the most part, feed off this small town mythology and magnify it, with astonishingly effective results.
Opener ‘You Go Where It Takes You’ is, in my opinion, the strongest story in the book. It’s the story of a single mother who, while working as a waitress, meets a man named Alex. He represents adventure and intrigue and the possibility of something ‘other’ than her unfulfilling everyday existence, but there’s something deeply strange about him too. It’s an exercise in brilliant pacing, with a wonderfully dark ending.
Other highlights included the Shirley Jackson award-winning ‘The Monsters Of Heaven’, which somehow manages to be both terribly disturbing and beautiful in a brittle, misshapen sort of way. A man struggling to cope with the loss of his son, and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage, finds a strange solace in an even stranger place. ‘The Good Husband’ is sad and terrible and extremely effective at capturing that sense of being ‘left behind’ in the wake of a loved one’s depression – it seemed to me that it was as much a love story as a horror story, albeit a very unconventional one. And ‘Sunbleached’, which is a refreshingly original take on the very well-worn vampire mythos – focusing on the relationship between a young boy and the vampire hiding beneath his house, with shades of ‘Let The Right One In’ in some places.
Ballingrud’s prose is always spot on, and this makes every story a joy to read – there is very little guff and filler, and instead the sense that every sentence is somehow individually important. His characters are well-drawn, dysfunctional without being caricatures – I have no idea if the small-town feel of many of the tales might strike some American readers as cliched but to me it added an extra dimension to the stories, a setting with which I was not instantly familiar but wanted to know more about.
This is an excellent collection of stories, and it has been nominated for a British Fantasy Award – a very worthy contender, in my opinion.