I just finished a short story by Nathan Ballingrud called “Wild Acre”. The story appears in a couple of places, but here in his collection of stories, North American Lake Monsters, it nestles in and fits quite well. (And you know how I feel about supporting our indie presses.)
In all fairness to the “horror story” as a more predictable but entertaining genre, “Wild Acre” isn’t your everyday run-of-the-mill horror story. Yes there’s a monster. Yes there’s some blood. There’s screaming, too; and moonlight.
But this story is different. There are multi-levels of meaning going on here, of which these “horror tropes” are a part…in the story as a whole; and within the mind of Jeremy, its protagonist. He’s unsettled. You’ll be unsettled. He’s afraid. You’ll be afraid.
But this is more like literature, playing in the dark…
“He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He felt his guts turn to stone. He knew he had to say something, he had to try to explain himself here, or someday she would leave. Maybe someday soon. But the fear was too tight; it wouldn’t let him speak. It would barely let him breathe.” (“Wild Acre”)
I’m not usually challenged with words to praise a piece of fiction. And if I just threw a bunch of familiar ones here onto the page, it would be cheap. So, I really had to stop here, and think about what “Wild Acre” was doing.
This story worked on me from start to finish, carefully. Like a true “short story” of the oft-studied literary type (e.g., by William Faulkner, John Cheever, Raymond Carver), “Wild Acre” showed me what it wanted me to see, and know; and it left me staring at things that were very human, not often thought about, and unsettling. By the end of the story I was stunned. It felt beautiful. And I wasnt sure why. There are multi-levels of meaning here, playing with the darkness and the light.
I can say “Wild Acre” is masterful. I can say it is self-assured. It knows itself. It understands its own authority. It anticipates. It knows what it is doing much like the old gypsy crone sitting on a log by the fire knows what she’s doing when she says Gather round. Gather round. For I’ve a tale to tell ye.. and begins by staring you down, one at a time, making sure she has your attention, catching any comfort she sees in your eyes, and shallows it with her own…Once upon a time…and she has control then, hasn’t she? All the to The howling End.
Just so, you won’t know what Ballingrud is doing in “Wild Acre”; not all the time; unless you notice the “ordinary” little facts, set in place like lamp posts along the way. And that’s OK. It’s the skill of the storyteller at work here. Don’t worry; all those little gypsy lamp posts will creep along after you as you go along, and they’ll get there first, and they’ll be waiting for you at the end.
There is a movement to the story. It runs along nicely on the surface of things—-but all the while you sense it is hinting at another very deep and very dark and very old current that runs slowly along the bottom and is the real agency here.
This is first-rate fiction laced with with horror tropes, not horror fiction trying at literary tropes. So much so, that I was reminded of Raymond Carver.
Something disquieting is moving deep inside the work of Nathan Ballingrud…
“There is a sense of dissonance, the foggy ether quality that, like it or not, Carver has been associated with throughout time. In many stories…the reader gets a sense that there is a huge body of glistening meaning there, but is left so vague as to encourage a variety of options, or none at all, depending on how you see it. A friend of mine once called Carver’s stories ‘disquieting’, and I have yet to think of a better description.”
– from the opening to “Two Interviews with Raymond Carver” translated by William L. Stull (1995-6, Cockwatch Review)
[(Werewolf art & Gypsy woman photo: Pinterest (no info). Book cover photo: Amazon.com)]