Wounds: Six Stories From the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud. Published 2019 by Saga Press. Reviewed by Scott Dorward.

Wounds cover

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.

Overview

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.

The Stories

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

“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.

Skullpocket

“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.

If you would like to sample this story before splashing out any money on Wounds, “Skullpocket” is readily available online, both to read and listen to.

The Maw

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

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Issue 4.5 of The Blasphemous Tome is out!

The Blasphemous Tome is the regular fanzine that we create for Patreon backers of The Good Friends of Jackson Elias podcast. It contains plenty of sanity-blasting content for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, along with original artwork, fiction, reviews and many other articles.

Unlike previous Tomes, issue 4.5 is a PDF, not a print publication. This is a special interim edition, packed with articles we couldn’t fit in issue 4 and lots of new content.

Issue 5, due later this year, will be print-only as usual.

Everyone backing us via Patreon by the end of July will receive a digital copy of issue 4.5.

Contents

Featured in this issue is a brand-new Call of Cthulhu scenario by our very own Paul Fricker, titled “Fall Out”.

Jonathan Weisner has taken hostages and is holed up at his country house in Massachusetts. Elements of the past are about to mix with the present, leaving the investigators to pick up the pieces.

The cover comes from John Sumrow, one of our favourite eldritch artists. There is plenty of interior artwork too, featuring pieces from Evan Dorkin, Emily Fricker and more from John Sumrow.

The articles in this issue include:

  • Sounds Alarming
    • Scott offers troubling insights into the noises we make for our backer songs
  • Cocktail Corner
    • Another of Matt’s favourite cocktail recipes, along with a little history about the drink in question
  • “Fall Out”
    • A brand-new modern-day Call of Cthulhu scenario from Paul
  • “Diary of an Unnamed Corpse”
    • An eerie tale of black magic set in 1920s Vienna, by Joerg Sterner
  • The Sanderson Collection
    • Matt reveals another rarity from the dusty corners of his library
  • Secrets of Milton Keynes
    • Scott presents the first in a series of Call of Cthulhu scenario hooks set in the home town of the Good Friends
  • Possible Worlds and Realism
    • Grant Dowell offers techniques for making our game worlds more realistic by using formal logic
  • The Forgotten
    • A macabre weird tale by Scott

How Do I Get a Copy?

If you would like to receive your copy of The Blasphemous Tome 4.5, all you have to do is back us on Patreon at any level before the end of July 2019.

Covers from bygone Tomes

Please note that we do not sell copies of The Blasphemous Tome. It is purely a reward for the wonderful people who back us via Patreon.

The Blasphemous Tome is licensed for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game by Chaosium, inc.

158: Mythos Deities: Hastur

We’re back and we’re taking a last look around Carcosa, wondering where all these tentacles came from. Robert W Chambers was more concerned with masks, moons and mists. Now there seem to be monsters everywhere and people are calling Hastur a god. Who is responsible for all this? Like everything relating to Carcosa, the answer is elusive and ambiguous.

Main Topic: Hastur

For the past few episodes, we’ve explored the Carcosa Mythos of Robert W Chambers. Its most famous elements — The King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign and Hastur — are usually seen as part of the Cthulhu Mythos, but we worked hard to keep these elements separate. Well, this is the episode in which we mash it all up again. Hail Hastur!

See? Tentacles! Tentacles everywhere!

We go on a deep dive into the Lake of Hali, trying to understand just what Hastur is. Bierce created him as a benign god of shepherds. Chambers took the name and made him a star (or maybe a place, or a person…) Lovecraft mentioned the name in passing but never defined anything. Derleth turned Hastur back into a god, or at least a Great Old One. Lin Carter added the Chambers back into Derleth’s work. Call of Cthulhu added new layers of complexity and John Tynes tore it all down and wrote a new mythology. So where does that leave Hastur? And how did the King in Yellow become his avatar when there is no mention of this in Chambers, Lovecraft or Derleth?

Hastur is an unusual deity, even by the standards of the Mythos. The Malleus Monstorum lists a number of avatars with no real thematic connection. He is associated with a variety of creatures, some of which seem like odd choices. Beyond his connection to The King in Yellow, it can be difficult to know what to do with him. We spend the latter half of the episode coming up with ways we might use Hastur in our games.

Links

Some of the specific works we mention in this episode include:

News

Masks of Nyarlathotep Nominated for Origins Award

The Origins Awards will be announced on Saturday the 15th of June, shortly after this episode goes out. Masks of Nyarlathotep is on the shortlist for Best Roleplaying Supplement. We shall keep you posted about how it fares.

The Blasphemous Tome 4b

Issue 4b of The Blasphemous Tome is slithering towards completion. This is our first attempt at a supplemental Tome, using some of the material we were unable to fit in issue 4. There will also be a bumper crop of specially written material, including a brand new Call of Cthulhu scenario from our very own Paul Fricker. You can also look forward to the mix of articles, fiction and art that you’ve come to expect from earlier Tomes. Unlike the previous editions, however, The Blasphemous Tome 4b will be a PDF-only publication. Anyone backing us at the time of release (probably early July) will receive a copy via Patreon.

Fictoplasm

If you would like to listen to a different take on The King in Yellow, Scott recently joined Ralph Lovegrove on his excellent podcast, Fictoplasm. They speculated about what the foundations of horror roleplaying might have been if Chambers rather than Lovecraft had been its main influence. This was just part of a longer series in which Ralph has explored novels in which fantastical works of fiction have proved more real than anticipated.

Other Stuff

Songs

Wise souls fear to speak the name of Hastur the Unmentionable. They know that the right words have the power to tear the world apart, letting madness rush in. Our songs have the same effect. We present two of them in this episode, offered in thanks to new Patreon backers.

Episode 157: The Carcosa Mythos in Media and Gaming

We’re back and we’re still blundering around in all this infernal mist. There is a sound of lapping water in the distance, but we’re more worried about the way these streets keep changing around us. You’d think someone would have compiled a street map of Carcosa, but no one even seems to be able to agree about what this place is. Let’s concentrate on getting our bearings and try to ignore that sound that’s not quite the laughter of children…

Main Topic: The Carcosa Mythos in Media and Gaming

We are continuing our in-depth look at The King in Yellow, the Carcosa Mythos and the horrors they have spawned. In previous episodes, we have discussed The King in Yellow and “The Yellow Sign”. This time, we’re focusing on how the Carcosa Mythos has been used by other writers, how it has been adapted for film and television, and what we can steal for our games.

Other Media

In the course of our discussion, we mention a number of books, stories, TV programmes and games:

As part of the discussion, we also pick a few favourite Carcosa Mythos stories.

  • Matt
    • “Broadalbin” by John Tynes, from Rehearsals for Oblivion
    • “Movie Night at Phil’s” by Don Webb, from A Season in Carcosa
    • “Beyond the Banks of the River Seine” by Simon Strantzas, from A Season in Carcosa
  • Scott
    • “River of Night’s Dreaming” by Karl Edward Wagner, from The Hastur Cycle
    • “More Light” by James Blish, from The Hastur Cycle
  • Paul
    • “Wishing Well” by Cody Goodfellow, from A Season in Carcosa
    • “Suicide Watch” by Arinn Dembo, from Delta Green: Dark Theaters

Games

We also discuss how we might use specific elements of the Carcosa Mythos in our games, as well as brainstorming a few scenario seeds.

The Yellow Sign badge from Sigh Co

News

UK Games Expo

If you are at UK Games Expo 2019 this weekend (31st of May to 2nd of June), do say hi to Matt and Paul. Both of them will be running games in the Cthulhu Masters tournament. Paul will also be joining our good friends from the Smart Party and Grognard Files podcasts for a seminar.

The Smart Party 100th episode

And speaking of the Smart Party… Paul recently joined Baz and Gaz for their 100th episode in which they offered a state-of-the-nation discussion about gaming.

Other Stuff

A Parcel of Goodies

A fantastically generous listener — Stephen Vandevander — sent us a parcel of goodies. You can hear us unwrap it in the backer segment, along with coos and expressions of heartfelt gratitude. The package included such goodies as The House of the Octopus by Jason Colavito and a spiffy Cthulhu idol from Pacific Giftware. This latter artefact is now watching over our recording studio, bringing fresh madness to every new episode. Thank you very much, Stephen!

As a bonus, you can see Paul’s new Carcosa-themed wallpaper and paint, as mentioned in the episode.

Songs

Those doomed souls lost forever in the mists of Carcosa cry piteously, their wails piercing the soul like daggers of ice. Our cries are more on the joyous side, but they still hurt the soul. We have captured them inside Paul’s computer and transformed them into praises of two new $5 Patreon backers. Soon, all shall despair as those damned souls do.

New iTunes Review

And finally, we were delighted to receive a new review from John Fiala, over on iTunes. These reviews sustain us emotionally and spiritually. If you feel moved to contribute to our wellbeing, or simply help others find our little corner of Carcosa, we would love it if you wrote a review wherever you download your podcasts.

Episode 156: The Yellow Sign

We’re back and we’re looking for the Yellow Sign. It’s probably fallen down the back of the sofa again. Have you found it? It’s tricky to describe, but you’ll know it if you see it. The whole impending doom thing is a bit of a giveaway. Just try not to read any strange plays for now.

Main Topic: The Yellow Sign

After two episodes about Robert W Chambers and The King in Yellow, we’re getting a little more specific. This is an in-depth look at one of the foundational stories of the Carcosa Mythos. Along with “The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask” and “In the Court of the Dragon”, “The Yellow Sign” defines the building blocks of Chambers’ most famous creation. It not only expands on the Yellow Sign itself but tells us more of the play and the effect it has on those who read it.

Don’t take our word about the effects. Have a good look at this. You’ll understand soon enough.

A few things came up during our conversation that warrant links, elaboration or correction.

  • Scott struggled to remember a comic having something to do with rarebit. This was, in fact, Winsor McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which first appeared almost 10 years after the publication of The King in Yellow.
  • We mulled over the use of glass-fronted coffins in the Victorian era. Well, they were definitely a thing.
  • This led us to discuss the display of Jeremy Bentham‘s remains at University College London.
“Sod the Yellow Sign. Have you found my head?”

And we promised to link to the short film of The Yellow Sign we found on YouTube. There are three parts to it, so let it play on.

News

Concrete Cow 19

Matt and Paul attended Concrete Cow 19 and ran some Call of Cthulhu and Kult: Divinity Lost. If you missed them, we’ll be at Concrete Cow 19 1/2 on the 14th of September. See you there!

Concrete Cow logo

Other Stuff

Songs

The Yellow Sign is an unwelcome intrusion into the lives of those who find it, bringing madness and destruction. We’re not saying that our songs have the same effect, but… Oh, hang on, that’s exactly what we’re saying. These two new bouts of thanks to Patreon backers are pregnant with premonitions. If they give you prophetic nightmares, please do let us know.

Reviews

We shared a fresh iTunes review from Soren H, which made us very happy. Reviews delight and sustain us. If you feel moved to write one of your own, you will earn our undying gratitude. And when we say “undying”, we mean it. You could chop its head off and bury it at a crossroads at midnight and it would still keep offering thanks from beyond the grave.

Other Feedback

Following our recent mention of Sons of Kryos, DrColossus1 got in contact via Reddit to let us know that Judd Karlman has a new podcast, Daydreaming About Dragons. It’s safe to say that The Good Friends of Jackson Elias wouldn’t exist without Sons of Kryos, so it’s marvellous to see Karlman return to podcasting.