Nathan Ballingrud is one of my favorite writers. You might remember that I reviewed his amazing novelette The Visible Filth a while ago, and here’s the follow-up to that – an interview with the man himself. This was conducted over the course of three days via Facebook. But first, a short bio:
Nathan Ballingrud is an American writer of horror and dark fiction. His first book, the collection ‘North American Lake Monsters: Stories’, was published by Small Beer Press to great acclaim; winning a Shirley Jackson Award and getting shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Bram Stoker Awards. He lives in Asheville, NC, with his daughter.
Nathan was very generous and responded wonderfully. The full interview is presented below, with light editing.
C(onqueror) W(eird): Okay, first question: what was your first major experience with horror?
N(athan) B(allingrud): My earliest memory is of watching Tobe Hooper’s TV miniseries adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot. I must have been eight or nine years old, I don’t know. But my mom let my brother and I watch it as it aired, and it energized me like nothing else I’d ever experienced in my life. I remember the dreadful tension in the scenes that took place in late afternoon or twilight. I found them more exciting than the action scenes. The moment when one of the townsfolk is rocking slowly in a rocking chair, his eyes glowing, as the sun sets outside the window, is probably the most iconic vampire moment – and horror moment – in my own personal library of frights. I guess I still think of that miniseries as the Platonic ideal of contemporary horror. I haven’t watched it again in decades; there’s no way it could have the same power for me now, and I’d prefer to remember it the way I experienced [it]: beautiful, terrifying, and exciting, all at the same time.
CW: Did that scene influence “Sunbleached”?
NB: Not that scene, no. But certainly the television show did. I wrote “Sunbleached” while Twilight was still in its heyday. I was tired of seeing romantic vampires. (Which had been going on well before Twilight.) Vampires are terrifying to me. I wanted to tap into that primal fear.
CW: What about literary influences…?
NB: My literary influences come from all over the map. Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway are probably the earliest, and therefore the strongest. I’m still captivated by the way John LeCarre is able to marry the requirements of genre fiction with more subtle, subversive ambitions. Shirley Jackson. Annie Proulx. The short stories of Richard Ford. Horror comics. A lot went into the blender, and still does.
CW: A lot of your work seems to go in the opposite direction of Lovecraft – that is, dropping the cosmic horror element in favor of more personal (and perhaps more damaging) terrors. Take, for example, “Wild Acre”, where the horror derives not from its indeed gruesome opening scene but from how the protagonist copes with the incident. Is there any reason why you have chosen to go in this direction?
NB: It’s not so much a conscious choice as it is the way my mind tends to work. I like stories which focus in peripheral characters, and personal resolutions. I’m always curious about what happens to the walk-on characters. The ones not part of the main story. In the case of “Wild Acre,” he’s not the guy who hunts the werewolf, and who gets the satisfaction of a final confrontation in a moonlit barn somewhere. He’s just one of those unlucky people whose life was briefly caught up in its wake. And the story is about what that might be like. Same thing with “You Go Where It Takes You” and “The Monsters of Heaven.” These are the people who appear in the movie credits as WAITRESS and MAN #4. Those people have stories too.
CW: I think that can be seen in The Visible Filth too, where Will gets caught up in something that’s a bit too large for him to understand.
NB: Yeah, I guess that’s true. He doesn’t ever figure out precisely what’s happening. How could he? But it still radically alters his life.
CW: That’s true, too; he does eventually become a part of the machine. Which, I think, he might be comforted by.
NB: I think he is. He makes that choice himself.
CW: While we’re on The Visible Filth, I’d like to ask a bit about the book mentioned within it, The Second Translation of Wounds. Is there any possibility that this book might reappear in future works?
NB: There’s a possibility, but there are no specific plans. With more recent works, I’m kind of creating a personal landscape of Hell, which has appeared – so far with little overlap – in a few short stories. The Love Mills in “The Diabolist,” the Black Iron Monks in “The Atlas of Hell.” The monks make an uncredited appearance in a new story, called “The Maw,” which will appear sometime soon. There are other elements also on the horizon: the Cannibal Priests, carrion angels, and the like. The book is probably part of it. Though whether I ever come back to it or develop it further, I don’t know yet.
CW: Can you tell us a little about your new collection?
NB: It’s a lot different in flavor and intent from North American Lake Monsters. Aside from The Visible Filth, there are more pulpy elements. Basically, I just wanted to have a little more fun, and play around with some different toys. While N[orth] A[merican] L[ake] M[onsters] had vampires and werewolves, this one has evil scientists, madhouses on the moon, booksellers of diabolical tomes, ghouls descending into a carnival. The Hell backdrop I just mentioned factors into a number of them. Not in a way which requires they be read in any particular order, or even impact each other, but just as an element that’s there for people to notice, if they like that kind of thing. I wanted to stretch some different muscles with this book. It’s due to appear in April of 2017.
CW: It really is amazing how you manage to blend realism with pulp in inextricable ways.
NB: I appreciate that!
CW: Any other projects in the works?
NB: A couple novels I’m working on, and have been for a while. They keep getting put on the back burner for short story commitments. I’ve resolved to write less short stories in the near future so I can focus on these larger projects. It’s time to get them done.
CW: A story of yours I think back to very often is “The Good Husband” – probably the first work of yours that I read, and one that has resonated with me since. What was the impetus for that story?
NB: With “The Good Husband,” I was thinking a lot about the breakdowns people experience in relationships, the dark avenues love will sometimes lead us down. A relationship is its own pocket cosmos, and sometimes it can cut you off from more universal ideas of right and wrong. I also wanted to write about the other side of dealing with mental illness: how it can be a struggle for the supporting members of the family, too, and how they each have to find a way to accommodate it. Sometimes you just get tired, and you slip. That story was my attempt to depict that complicated relationship, while giving each perspective its fair shake, and hopefully without coming down too hard in judgement against anybody. No one’s entirely clean in that story, but none of them are bad people, either. They’re just caught up in the normal messiness of life.
CW: I think some parallels to that can be seen in The Visible Filth as well.
NB: Sure. Writers have their favorite themes, and they’re not always conscious of them. I’m always interested in the conflict of perspectives. In any disagreement, each party has genuine motivation. Each believes in their own perspective, and feels justified in their position. That’s interesting to me, and I like to illustrate that. I sometimes get impatient with stories that take sides. I’m much more interested in giving a fair representation to each perspective. I think it just makes for better drama.
CW: I definitely think you’re correct.
A lot of your stories carry a strong sense of place, particularly those set in New Orleans. I know you’ve lived and worked there before, but what keeps drawing you back to that particular location?
NB: It’s my favorite city. I was truly happy there. And the city itself is so steeped in history, so full of character. It’s culturally and racially diverse, which gives it a vitality few other cities have. I like to go back there in my imagination. Of course, it’s been ten years now, so I have to be mindful of the fact that the city I’m writing about is a snapshot of a place before Katrina. I’ve started setting less stories there for that very reason. I don’t want the city as it appears in my stories to be an anachronism. The Jack Oleander stories will be set there – “The Atlas of Hell” and its follow-ups – and that’ll probably be it. Those stories are more dependent on an imaginary landscape anyway, so I can get away with a New Orleans which might be slightly out of step with the current version. But generally, I like to be accurate.
CW: Final question: what draws you to writing, and to horror specifically?
NB: They’re both just as natural to me as breathing. I write because it’s the only thing I know how to do well, and I write horror because that’s just the way my imagination works. My brain is full of ghosts and cobwebs and creaking doors. I couldn’t stop doing either one if I tried.
You can order Nathan’s first collection, North American Lake Monsters: Stories, here; and his novelette The Visible Filth here. His second collection, The Atlas of Hell, comes out April 2017 from Small Beer Press.