Wounds: Six Stories From the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud. Published 2019 by Saga Press. Reviewed by Scott Dorward.
What Came Before
Nathan Ballingrud’s first book, North American Lake Monsters, is my favourite short story collection of recent years. If you and I have spoken or interacted online, or if you’ve delivered pizza to my house, I’ve probably told you at length about its poignant tales of damaged people struggling with the intrusion of the unnatural into their lives. North American Lake Monsters won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Single-Author Collection in 2013 and Hulu have recently commissioned a television series based upon it. It is a hell of a book to live up to.
You can find a full review of North American Lake Monsters in issue three of The Blasphemous Tome, should you happen to have a copy lying around. Alternatively, you can get a short insight into the collection by listening to the episode we released about Ballingrud’s story, “Wild Acre”.
In the six years since North American Lake Monsters, Ballingrud’s focus has shifted. The stories in Wounds also pack a flurry of emotional punches, but they largely do so in a more playful manner. Where Ballingrud’s earlier stories were rooted in the horrors of real life, most of those in Wounds abound with weirdness and vivid imagination. This is a fun collection — not a description I’d readily offer for North American Lake Monsters, no matter how much I love it.
Wounds is comprised of four short stories/novelettes and two substantial novellas. One of the novellas — “The Visible Filth” — was previously published as a standalone book by This is Horror in 2015 and has been revised for this collection. Between them, the novellas take up the bulk of the book. “The Butcher’s Table” is a shade under 100 pages, making it the longest piece of Ballingrud’s work currently in print. It is also the only story original to this collection.
One of the elements that make Wounds special is the sometimes understated connections between the stories. With the possible exception of “The Atlas of Hell” and “The Butcher’s Table”, there is not a direct narrative connection running through them. Instead, Ballingrud reuses names of places and sects, laying the groundwork for an implied mythology. This is somewhat reminiscent of Lovecraft’s approach, although more subtle.
A Mythology of Hell
The mythology that Ballingrud is weaving is largely that of Hell. While Hell does not feature directly in every story, the whiff of sulphur permeates them all. What makes all this special is that the presentation of the infernal owes less to classical depictions than to the awesome power of Ballingrud’s imagination. His Hell is uncanny and utterly inhuman, the mere sight of it capable of driving human minds to madness. When it touches upon our world, it is a corrupting and transformative presence. The power and knowledge it offers are dangerous to more than one’s immortal soul. It is home to demons that sculpt human flesh into vast works of art and places with unsettlingly evocative names, such as the Love Mills. This is not a Hell any of us have seen before and it is all the more unsettling for this.
I hope that Ballingrud revisits his vision of Hell in future stories. Its sheer bloody weirdness makes it one of the more memorable creations in modern horror.
Let’s delve into the stories themselves. While I shall avoid major spoilers, there will be some plot details by necessity. Go and read the book now if you’re spoiler-averse and already sold on it. Otherwise, here we go…
The Atlas of Hell
A number of critics have compared Wounds to Clive Barker’s early work — particularly The Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart — and I largely agree. They offer a similar cocktail of blood and imagination, although Ballingrud’s touch is defter, relying a little less on shocks while still delivering them aplenty.
“The Atlas of Hell” is perhaps where this comparison is most apt. The mix of hard-boiled adventure and occult horror is reminiscent of Barker’s Harry D’Amour stories, although morally murkier. The protagonist of this story, Jack Oleander, is no hero. The owner of a seedy bookshop in New Orleans, Oleander is well-connected in the occult underworld of his city. As well as providing him with a living, this also makes him a target.
In classic noir fashion, Oleander is strong-armed by a local gangster into locating and obtaining the titular atlas. This leads him deep into the bayou, travelling through swampland that has been touched by Hell, and into ever-increasing danger.
While the plot of “The Atlas of Hell” is relatively simple, it is brought to life by horrific detail. The touches of Hell we encounter are nightmarish and gruesome, and the nature of the atlas itself will haunt the reader long after. This is a strong opening story and one that sets the tone for the collection perfectly.
As an aside, “The Atlas of Hell” was originally supposed to lend its name to this collection. This was changed late on, to tie into the name of the film adaptation of “The Visible Filth”. While Wounds is a perfectly fine title, and using it was a sound commercial decision, it is nowhere near as evocative as The Atlas of Hell. In a few years, after the dust has settled on the film, it would be lovely to see this book reissued under its original name.
“The Diabolist” is an odd, deceptively gentle story that unfolds into something truly disturbing. Unlike most of the rest of the book, there is little gore here, but that does not mean that the story is not horrific.
Our narrator is an imp, summoned from the Love Mills of Hell by a recently deceased diabolist. Perplexingly at first, the imp speaks of itself in the first-person plural, telling us of its imprisonment in the magical workshop of the late sorcerer and its awkward attempts to forge a bond with his uninterested daughter.
While there is plenty to love about “The Diabolist”, it is perhaps the slightest story in the collection; it is certainly the shortest. Clever tricks with narration and the richness of unsettling detail keep it from being ordinary, and it builds to a satisfying conclusion, but it is still overshadowed by the other pieces.
“Oh, how I would love to go to a place made only for screams.”
In a collection packed with variety, “Skullpocket” still manages to stand out. This is Ballingrud at his most playful, telling a tale of a strange little town near Chesapeake Bay, home to a carnival run by ghouls.
This is the story of Jonathan Wormcake, the Gentleman Corpse of Hob’s Landing, and his part in the history of the Skullpocket Fair. It introduces a unique take on ghouls and their lifecycle, both humanising them and making them utterly alien. And, if that weren’t enough, the story is filled with other monsters and a most repellent charnel god.
The horror in “Skullpocket” shifts tone drastically throughout the story, keeping the reader off-balance but never feeling like it has lost its way. At times it is whimsical, as a floating head in a jar plays storyteller to a group of enraptured children. Other times, it is sad and beautiful, as we peek inside a most unusual freak show. And there are moments of more gruesome nastiness dotted throughout, such as the origin of the name “Skullpocket”. This is a story filled with macabre delights and a wicked sense of fun.
While there is no explicit connection to the infernal elements of the other stories, a brief mention of Hob’s Landing in “The Diabolist” ties “Skullpocket” into the larger continuity of Wounds.
“Skullpocket” is the first instalment in a planned series of stories detailing the history of Hob’s Landing. If the others live up to the dark wonders on offer here, this will probably become my favourite strand of Ballingrud’s work.
Hell has burst forth into the mortal world, transforming a section of an unnamed American city. The area it has consumed, now known as Hollow City, has been sealed off for public safety. Demons walk the streets, mutilating any humans they catch in the most nightmarish of ways.
People, however, are capable of adapting to almost any situation, sometimes even profiting from them. Mix has built a new career for herself, sneaking into Hollow City to retrieve lost people or items. When she is hired by an old man named Carlos for a rescue mission, the two of them stumble upon the demons’ true purpose on Earth.
“The Maw” is probably the most viscerally nasty story in this collection. It is also the most uplifting. Perhaps even more oddly, it turns bloodshed and mutilation into something beautiful. While this is a short piece, with a tight focus, the glimpses of Hell it offers will linger in the reader’s mind long after the book has been safely hidden away on a shelf.
The Visible Filth
Will is a bartender at a New Orleans establishment that caters to seedy regulars, slumming college kids and endless waves of cockroaches. After a bloody fight in the bar, Will finds a mobile phone dropped by one of the brawlers. Before he gets around to finding the owner, the phone starts receiving messages that lead Will and those around him deep into nightmare.
“The Visible Filth” is a grimy story, both in the grubby, sweat-sodden, cockroach infested world it presents but also in the inner world of the characters. Will is not a good or happy person even before demonic forces enter his life, and his self-centredness and lack of empathy make tragedy inevitable.
At various points in Wounds, Ballingrud’s vision of Hell borders on Lovecraftian horror. This is especially true in “The Visible Filth”. The cult that target Will and his girlfriend Carrie feel more like something from the Cthulhu Mythos than simple Satanists. And the forces they deal with are not just morally corrosive but maddening in a way we might associate with cosmic horror.
But the horror in “The Visible Filth” is not only cosmic or infernal. The sadism, gore and pure cruelty here are as upsetting as anything I have encountered in horror fiction. Ballingrud hints at many of these elements, tantalising us with scant details, but when he wants to show us something nauseating, he does not hold back. This is a deeply unpleasant story.
“The Visible Filth” is a novella and Ballingrud gives the story plenty of space to grow. Some apparent digressions — such as Will’s infidelity — work not only to add to the sense of moral degradation but also to hasten his isolation from the support structures of normal human life. Everything about this story drives us deeper into darkness, even when it is not immediately obvious how. And the ending, when it arrives, is both cruelly abrupt and terrifyingly weird.
Out of all the stories in this collection, “The Visible Filth” most resembles Ballingrud’s earlier work. While it touches upon his burgeoning mythology of Hell, it is also rooted in the kinds of everyday problems that grounded the stories in North American Lake Monsters. It feels almost like a transitional stage between the two books.
At the time of writing, the film adaptation of “The Visible Filth” — named Wounds and thus giving this collection its title — has only been shown at festivals. It is slated for release in 2019, so we shouldn’t have long to wait. Apparently, Babak Anvari (director of the exceptional Under the Shadow) has made a faithful adaptation, and the shocking imagery has upset some critics, as has the near-hallucinatory storytelling. Personally, I can’t wait to see what these horrors will look like splattered all over the screen.
The Butcher’s Table
Taking up over a third of the page count, “The Butcher’s Table” is this collection’s big beast. It is also a difficult story to sum up simply. This is a heady mixture of elements — satanic horror, romance, intrigue, adventure and, of course, pirates. There is something for everyone here.
The Butcher’s Table of the title is a pirate ship, chartered by a gentlemanly satanic cult called the Candlelight Society to pay a visit to the shores of Hell for a special feast. Of course, no such journey could be a simple one and the means of travel lead to their own terrors and complications.
These complications multiply as the different factions involved in the journey pursue their own agendas. The cannibal priests of the Buried Church may share similar satanic beliefs to the Candlelight Society, but their methods and appetites are far less genteel. Distrust metastasises into bickering and violence at all the worst possible moments. All of this would be dangerous enough if everyone was exactly who they said they were and the ship wasn’t being pursued by monstrous forces.
Once again, Ballingrud presents us with depictions of Hell that are compelling, nightmarish and unique. The climax of this story is a glorious descent into madness and bloodshed, set against a wonderfully bizarre backdrop. And, neatly, one particular atrocity sets up the events of “The Atlas of Hell”, looping us back around to the beginning of the book. At times, Wounds feels like a wet jigsaw puzzle made up of a thousand wriggling pieces.
At its dark, charnel heart, “The Butcher’s Table” is the kind of story I love best. Its narrative is driven by hidden motivations, betrayals and nasty surprises. The unpleasantness of its characters and their actions only makes them all the more compelling. This is a thoroughly satisfying romp into terror.
As I mentioned at the outset, Wounds is a very different book than North American Lake Monsters. I can easily imagine a reader falling in love with one of them and struggling with the other. Wounds is probably the more accessible of the two — while its horrors don’t feel as personal, they are glorious eruptions of blood and imagination. And while many of the elements I love about North American Lake Monsters are absent here, or maybe only present in “The Visible Filth”, I never found myself missing them.
There is not a weak story in this collection. Some stand out more than others — “Skullpocket” is probably my favourite, but it is a close-run race. The variety of tone and sheer bloody fun of it all means Wounds is a joy to read, even when it is making you squirm and wince with discomfort.