Welcome to the seventh installment of my “Author of the Week”! Every Sunday, I post about a Weird Fiction and/or Lovecraftian author that I think more readers should know about. If you have suggestions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
I asked Nathan four questions:
Please tell us about yourself — as much or as little as you’d like to say.
I’m 43 years old, living in the mountains of North Carolina with my teenaged daughter. I started writing seriously later than most people do, I guess, and I also started slowly. Sometimes that worries me. I feel the need to produce more quickly; I worry about running out of time just as I’m getting started. I spent most of my adult life working as a bartender, or a cook, or a waiter, or as a drudge on offshore oil rigs. I write a lot about the poor and the working class, because that’s been my world for a long time.
How and why did you begin writing?
I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. I remember I’d write little stories in elementary school, and the teacher would carve out some story time once I week, allowing me to sit in the big chair and read my little adventures to the class. I thought I was pretty special. I’m sure the other kids wanted to kill me.
I didn’t take up writing seriously until I was in my early thirties. For me, it’s a way of applying some degree of order to the world, and a way of drawing beauty — a particular interpretation of beauty, anyway — from a sorrowful, violent, and capricious world. It’s a kind of rebellion, I suppose. It’s also a way of communicating something fundamental to myself, something I could never otherwise express. These stories are a blueprint to who I am. If you know them, you know me.
What is it about Lovecraftian horror and Weird Fiction that appeals to you?
With Lovecraft in particular, I love the coldness of his aesthetic. I love the presumption of an indifferent, or sometimes hostile, universe. Many of us take this for granted, but it’s one thing to understand it in the abstract, and quite another to see it manifested in mad shoggoths haunting ice-locked ghost cities, or in some mysterious cosmic spoor contaminating the groundwater and blighting an entire countryside with madness and rot. For all its pulp trappings, something about it feels fundamentally right, fundamentally honest, to me.
It’s harder for me to answer with respect to the Weird in general, because that’s one of those words with a slippery meaning. It’s different things to different people, and it’s meaning changes with the times. I think of it as a subversive literature, similar to horror, but perhaps with a broader color palette. Maybe with a greater sense of humor and a more adventurous spirit. I love how unfettered a lot of weird fiction feels. How unapologetically in indulges in mad ideas and creepy conceits. I think my favorite weird story of all time is Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Colossus of Ylourgne” — part of his Averoigne cycle of stories — in which a necromancer sets up camp in an abandoned castle in medieval France, where he boils the bones and flesh of the risen dead in great cauldrons, fashioning them into a giant homunculus, upon whose back he rides in a little basket as it wreaks havoc upon the countryside. Such a brilliant, brawling tumble of a story. “Where … could men hope to hide themselves from the awful thing, begotten by Hell on the ravished charnel, that would walk forth like the Anakim to visit its roaring wrath on a trampled world?” Where, indeed?
Which of your books do you recommend that readers begin with?
I recommend they start with North American Lake Monsters, since that’s my only book so far. However, a chapbook called “The Visible Filth” will soon be available from This Is Horror, and more short stories have recently appeared which indulge in the aesthetic of the weird perhaps more overtly than some of the stories in the book. Specifically: “The Atlas of Hell” (Fearful Symmetries; Ellen Datlow, ed.) is a story about an occult bookseller who is sent, in the company of a mobbed up hit man, to find a very unusual book in the swamps of Louisiana; “Skullpocket” (Nightmare Carnival; Ellen Datlow, ed.) is a story about a group of ghoul children who stumble into a regional fair in the early part of the 20th Century (I think of this one as my version of a Tim Burton animated movie); and “The Diabolist” (Monstrous Affections, Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant, eds.), about a the daughter of a just-deceased diabolist who ventures into his laboratory and finds the thing he’s conjured from Hell still bound, and lonely. And more is coming soon.
I’d like to thank Nathan for taking the time to answer my questions. Nathan won the Shirley Jackson Award for his debut collection North American Lake Monsters:
Nathan Ballingrud’s Shirley Jackson Award winning debut collection is a shattering and luminous experience not to be missed by those who love to explore the darker parts of the human psyche. Monsters, real and imagined, external and internal, are the subject. They are us and we are them and Ballingrud’s intense focus makes these stories incredibly intense and irresistible.
These are love stories. And also monster stories. Sometimes these are monsters in their traditional guises, sometimes they wear the faces of parents, lovers, or ourselves. The often working-class people in these stories are driven to extremes by love. Sometimes, they are ruined; sometimes redeemed. All are faced with the loneliest corners of themselves and strive to find an escape.
Nathan Ballingrud was born in Massachusetts but has spent most of his life in the South. He worked as a bartender in New Orleans and New York City and a cook on offshore oil rigs. His story “The Monsters of Heaven” won the inaugural Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with his daughter.