Nathan Ballingrud is an American writer of horror and dark fiction. His first book, the short story collection North American Lake Monsters, was published earlier this year by Small Beer Press to great acclaim. Awards and honors include a Shirley Jackson Award for his story “The Monsters of Heaven,” as well as multiple reprints in Year’s Best anthologies. His work has appeared in Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, Lovecraft Unbound, and Inferno: New Tales of Terror, among other publications. The title story of his collection is reprinted elsewhere on this site, and it serves as a great representative of the high overall quality of the collection, which we strongly recommend to all our readers.
I recently interviewed Ballingrud via email about his writing and what he went through writing the stories in North American Lake Monsters, among other things…
WFR.com: What kinds of stories did you read growing up? What do you recall standing out as particularly unusual, weird, or out of the ordinary?
Nathan Ballingrud: I’ve loved the aesthetic of horror fiction as far back as I can remember. My favorite stories were always ghost stories, or stories about creepy old houses with slimy things crawling around in the basement. When I got older my mother introduced me to Stephen King’s work (or maybe I just grabbed one of her books and started reading without her knowing; I don’t remember). There was no looking back after that. I didn’t read much science fiction or fantasy as a teen; in fact, the only fantasy I remember reading was Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, of which there were six at the time. I remember being captivated by the idea that the protagonist was a bad human being. He was violent, ugly, and selfish, and yet he was still the hero of the story. I found that exciting and transgressive. I considered myself to be ugly and selfish, too, and my thoughts were certainly violent, if not my actions; it was profoundly affecting to see a character like that portrayed as a someone with value, with something in him still to be loved. Aside from horror fiction, though, my other great passion was spy fiction. I started out reading everything I could get my hands on by writers like Robert Ludlum, Len Deighton, and Helen MacInnes; as I grew older and my critical facilities matured, I discovered Graham Greene and John LeCarre. I still read them both, and I expect I will for the rest of my life.
As far as what stands out, I still vividly remember a book a read when I was a kid, called Witches, Ghosts, and Goblins: A Spooky Search for Miranda’s Cat, by Ruthanna Long. This book cracked my world open. In fact, it might be the cornerstone for my entire life as a reader and a writer. I haven’t laid eyes on it since I was seven or eight, probably, but I remember it so well: it had giants, pirates, ghosts, a midnight ride on a witch’s broom, and it was gloriously illustrated by Paul Durand. I’m feeling the old stirrings of excitement just writing about it. At the time, I was just consumed by the story and the art. Looking back as an adult, I’m struck by the breadth of its scope and the generosity of its vision. It was at once kind, frightening, beautiful, spooky, and wildly adventurous. I think, subconsciously, it’s been my North Star ever since. One day I hope to write something as wonderful. If there is any benevolent force in the universe, someone will find this spectacular children’s book and reprint it.
A couple years later, though, two stories in particular went off like depth charges in my little brain: “The Monkey’s Paw,” by W.W. Jacobs, and “Sweets to the Sweet,” by Robert Bloch. The first is a profoundly heart-breaking story that derives its power from the grief of bereaved parents; the monster, if you can call it that, never appears on the page. The horror is entirely psychological. It remains one of my favorite horror stories of all time. “Sweets to the Sweet” just shocked me. It has a more visceral punch, and there’s no doubt what horrible thing happens at the end. The child is genuinely evil, and as a child myself I found that both terrifying and very right.
WFR.com: How would you define or describe your personal aesthetic as a writer, in your own words? Your stories frequently get read in the context of horror or weird fiction, but there’s honestly much more to them than just that.
Ballingrud: With the stories in North American Lake Monsters, I wanted to write pieces that hurt. I wanted to write about people we’re conditioned to regard as contemptible, or dull, or even as villains, and get to their humanity. If I can get a reader to feel some empathy for somebody on the cusp of joining a white supremacy movement, or an ex-con who treats his own family with the same hostile suspicion he felt for other inmates, or a man who turns his back on his mentally ill wife, then I’ve succeeded in my intent. I have no interest in redeeming any of these characters, necessarily. But we live in a society that encourages us to view each other in simplistic and tribalistic terms, and that leads to an erosion of empathy, which is destructive to the human condition – to our ability to live successfully in an integrated society. It’s important that we look at people we think of as evil or irredeemable, and find the thing inside them that can still be loved. We’re doomed, if we can’t do that.
As I grew older and my reading tastes evolved, I discovered writers like Ernest Hemingway, Richard Ford, Virginia Woolf, and others. They provided an entirely different kind of pleasure, and I grew addicted to it. They wrote about how it felt to be alive. They made a lonely night in a diner feel like hearing the strains of a cello. The preparations for a social gathering, wandering a parking lot late at night, fishing in a slow-moving river: these experiences were given a gorgeous spiritual weight, and I responded to them just as enthusiastically as I had to the aesthetics of horror or weird fiction.
In the early nineties I’d just sold my first professional short story. It was called “She Found Heaven,” and it sold to Kristine Kathryn Rusch at F&SF. I had the latest copy of the magazine to hand; the cover image was of a dragon standing in front of a cinema marquee, dressed in sparkling finery, while the press snapped photos and shoved microphones in its face. But I was flipping through the collected short stories of Hemingway, and I settled onto a tiny piece called “A Day’s Wait.” A few minutes later I had tears in my eyes. That story kicked me in the heart. And it was so small: like a little bullet. I put the book down, and my glance fell onto that goddamned dragon. I knew I had to change my life. I didn’t submit a story for publication again for several years.
Furthermore, I think my own aesthetic is still in flux. Now that North American Lake Monsters is out, I have a yearning to try something less serious. I love pulp fiction, I love comics. And I want to throw everything I love into the pot. The next book will probably be very different. It may be harder to gain a dedicated readership that way, but the world is too big – human experience is too varied and exciting – to do the same thing over and over.
WFR.com: What do you think makes for a truly compelling horror or weird fiction story, when you encounter it in reading or writing?
Ballingrud: I’ll speak directly to horror stories, since they’re what I’m more familiar with. I think of horror as the literature of antagonism, and this is why it’s so valuable to us. For me – and of course I speak entirely of my own preferences – a good horror story is upsetting. It does not reinforce the status quo. It’s an act of hostility to some cherished assumption, whether it’s the durability of familial bonds, the presumed benevolence of God, or even the basic decency of our own hearts. Horror fiction should harshly interrogate everything that makes us feel content. It’s the devil’s advocate of literature. We absolutely need that, and that’s why it abides, whether we call it horror, or Gothic, or strange, or weird. It’s all an interrogation.
WFR.com: What would you consider your favorite stories, and why?
Ballingrud: What a tough question. There are just so many. I’ll write some down, and think of a dozen more. Well, some of them I’ve already mentioned, such as “The Monkey’s Paw” and “A Day’s Wait.” I love “Rock Springs,” by Richard Ford; it’s a beautiful piece of realism about a man, his daughter, and his girlfriend evading the law because he’s written too many bad checks. It’s a story about the small but inexorable ways life comes at you, and it’s written in an spare, elegant prose. It’s one of those stories I can feel, like a pressure in my chest. “The Mud Below,” by Annie Proulx, is a gorgeous story about a young rodeo performer. Proulx’s prose is incandescent, and she illustrates the protagonist’s hard collisions with life unflinchingly and with great compassion. That’s a combination I always find irresistible. One of the most effective horror stories I’ve read is “Occultation,” by Laird Barron. It’s a small-scale piece about two lovers sharing a hotel room, playing a game called “Something Scary.” The mounting dread is pitch-perfect. It’s one of the few stories I finished with a very real prickling along my scalp. “The Two Sams,” by Glen Hirshberg, is a heartbreaking ghost story, both tender and creepy at the same time. But my god, there are so many: “Black Step,” by Daniel Woodrell, “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” by Karen Russell, “Laika Comes Back Safe,” by Maureen F. McHugh, “Names For Water,” by Kij Johnson, “A Jew of Persia,” by Mark Helprin, “Dragons May Be the Way Forward,” by Leni Zumas … I can literally go on all day.
WFR.com: What writers or storytellers do you look up to the most?
Ballingrud: This is another tough one, because there are a lot of ways to answer this. I suppose I can say that I really admire writers who are able to marry the pleasures of genre to the ambitions of literature. I want to be able to read about monsters and also get that wonderful frission that happens when a writer touches on something deeply human. Lucius Shepard does this very well, and I consider him to be a kind of literary father. Whenever I feel like I’m losing focus, or forgetting my purpose, I can read him and be reminded of it. At his best, he’s one of the finest American writers alive. John LeCarre does this phenomenally well, as did Patrick O’Brien. And, of course, Michael Cisco may be the best living example of this.
WFR.com: You mentioned earlier in the interview that with the stories in North American Lake Monsters that you “wanted to write pieces that hurt,” which forced us to take a second look at people or things we might find difficult to examine otherwise. In light of that, which of the stories in your collection was the most difficult for you to write, personally?
Ballingrud: There were a few that were personally troubling, most specifically “S.S.” and “The Good Husband.” But the toughest, without question, was “You Go Where It Takes You.” I had the germ of that idea for some time, since before my daughter was born. But when I sat down to write it she was two years old. It was precisely because she had arrived, because I knew what it felt like to be a parent, that I was able to do it. But when it came time to write that last scene, I had to step away for a while. I found her in the other room, playing with her toys, and I picked her up and held her, then sat down and played with her for a while. Just had fun with her. I had to apologize to her, in a way, for the scene I was about to write. I had to make it known somehow, maybe just to myself, that the story was not real. That nothing terrible was really about to happen.
The worst criticism I’ve ever received came from someone who read that story, and told me, “You must really not like being a father.” It hurt to hear that, because the truth is I would not have been able to write that story without a profound love.
But I’m hardly the first writer to be confused for the characters in his story.
WFR.com: Finally, what do you consider the weirdest story you’ve read, and why?
Ballingrud: At this point in my reading life, that’s an impossible thing to measure. But I can tell you what struck me at the time as the weirdest, and changed everything that came afterwards for me. And that was “In the Hills, the Cities,” by Clive Barker. Barker is another of those writers that changed my life; I read Stephen King growing up, of course, but it wasn’t until I read Barker that I thought of horror fiction as something truly beautiful and truly dangerous. King offered catharsis and fun; Barker scared me, goaded me, and seduced me. He was writing antagonistic fiction. And that story … oh, my god. I had never read anything like that in my life, and my imagination has never been the same since. Those who have read it know what I mean. Those who haven’t should come to it clean, so I’m not going to go into what happens. But – like Ruthanna Long, Hemingway, and W.W. Jacobs – Clive Barker is part of my bedrock. I owe them all everything.