Fantastic cover art by Pye Parr
Nathan Ballingrud is the very definition of a rising star. While he’s been publishing stories for years, his excellent 2013 debut collection, North American Lake Monsters, brought him from virtually unknown to one of the most talked about writers in modern horror and dark fiction. Those nine stories demonstrated a uncommon level of craft, a powerful imagination, and an ability to crreate uncomfortably believable characters. Ballingrud writes about the everyday, the seemingly unexceptional and the flawed coming face to face with the other. Gritty and gruesome, he’s equal parts Jim Thompson and Clive Barker. The man can write, and he can get under your skin.
Given how much I enjoyed North American Lake Monsters, The Visible Filth had a lot to live up to. Good news, then, that not only is it as strong as his previous work, the promise it holds of a novel-length work is positively mouth-watering.
It’s clear from the opening that this novella will carry us to unpleasant places – Ballingrud sets the tone with the comical and the grotesque as cockroaches galavant among the stock and furniture of the crummy bar where the comfortably underachieving, noncommittal Will works. A violent altercation and a possibly misplaced cell phone sets the story off, dragging you with it whether you like it or not. The Visible Filth has the feel of a bad trip – the ordinary and the banal shift into the hallucinogenic, growing stranger with every sentence, achieving a drug-like come-up effect that you know is leading inexorably towards a terrible crash. What makes it all the more powerful is that these characters feel real. I recognize the emptiness of Will’s existence in my own younger, hedonistic days – when his girlfriend Carrie tells Will, “You’re scared. You’re a scared little boy,” as uncomfortable as it is, that’s as accurate an assessment of a noncommittal life of disengagement and responsibility avoidance that I’ve ever read.
The Visible Filth is a gritty, sour mouthful of bad mushrooms, washed down with whiskey. You’ll get through it all right, and you’ll be better for it, but in the best way, you’re not going to enjoy it. Ballingrud has delivered a powerful novella of horror, literary and cinematic. Undoubtedly, this will be one of 2015s best horror reads. If you’ve slept on Nathan Ballingrud until now, jump in. It’s only going to get stranger from here on out.