By Ms. Ryder
The Monster: that existential threat to one’s very existence. We all have them. Some of them bear sharp, wet, wolf-like fangs, and some are simply the results of our honest mistakes, like saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time, to the wrong person, severing ties with them forever: however innocent, the damage has been done. Sometimes we are the monster in someone else’s world, and we do not even know it. Whatever a monster looks like, it becomes one’s antagonist, often getting in the way of vital things like learning and contentment. However, we humans are resilient creatures and often find ways to cope with and overcome our demons, making us stronger, more thoughtful, and more empathetic members of society. North American Lake Monsters is an example of what happens when monsters cannot be, or will not be vanquished, and are allowed to run free to the detriment of their protagonists, and those unfortunate enough to be involved with them.
Ballingrud’s first book of short stories is rife with tales about skin-shifters, Neo-Nazis, swamp creatures, and werewolves, but what is interesting about this book is its attention to the human experience, both the monsters’ and the victims’. The chilling thing about monsters – or villains - is that, in reality, they are not as two-dimensional as many classic narratives would have us believe. Monsters have some redeeming qualities or at least can aspire to some of the more forgivable traits in their own realms of reality. It may not be enough to mollify what is deemed good in a universal sense, but it does bear considering that evil is not purely a fairy-tale stepmother trying to do away with her gorgeous step-daughter because she is prettier than her. There is usually more to it, which often makes a villain’s actions more harrowing, because despite knowing right from wrong, they are still capable of doing hideous things. Insanity, deprivation, isolation, and extrication are just some of the reasons evil exists; Ballingrud reminds us that none of us are immune to monstrous things.
In North American Lake Monsters, there is something intrinsically wrong with each protagonist’s life. In “S.S.” a teenage boy – whose single and aging mother is paralyzed and terminally ill – lives a deprived, sorry existence. His life is a gritty mess of dirty dishes, overdue energy bills, and societal seclusion, leading him to feel angry, trapped, and completely lost. As a result, he falls for the wrong girl and becomes enthralled by the underground world of Neo-Naziism. In “You Go Where It Takes You,” a single mother with a history of attracting violent partners – some of whom have harmed her young daughter – gets talking to a kind-looking, reasonable-talking man while working at a dive-diner in the middle of nowhere. On learning that the man she has befriended is not wearing the skin he was born with, she becomes terrified, but also exhilarated by the idea of morbid adventure and wants to go with him on his journey. Such is her sick fascination with ill-fated circumstances. But what leads these characters to this kind of juncture? Society? Failure? Circumstance? Abuse? Illness? One thing is certainly clear: their monsters and the monsters of their antagonists are too large, and too all-consuming to overcome, leading to a perpetual cycle that they cannot seem to break; one so familiar that perhaps they do not want to break it for fear of what might be on the other side. This aphorism is all too common to the American landscape with all its toxicity, hope, and ardor for schadenfreude.
Each story in Ballingrud’s collection intertwines dark fantasy with ration and reality so that the lines are blurred between what is lucid, and what is an illusion, posing the questions: who are the real monsters, and in which world do they really flourish? We may only look inside ourselves for an honest answer.
If you are looking to read something timely, unusual, and thought-provoking this Halloween, pick up North American Lake Monsters, available through all major literary outlets.