It’s tempting, when discussing a short story collection, to focus on the individual parts, but it’s an inadvisable approach when it comes to Nathan Ballingrud’s Wounds, the new book from an award-winning writer of stories designed to infest your dreams.
In this case, it’s not that the individual stories aren’t superb—they are, particularly the brutal and discomfiting “The Visible Filth,” an adaptation of which generated buzz at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. But the true dark beauty of Wounds is in the fact that the further you venture into the book, the more convinced you become that Ballingrud is weaving his disparate tales into a terrifying cosmology of a world on the border of Hell, one whose human denizens really need to learn that evil isn’t to be toyed with. Each story offers a twisted portrait of flawed humanity, exploring themes of love, obsession, and cosmic terror. A strange pattern of wounds repeats throughout, and it’s this strange connective tissue—a consideration of the lasting effects of trauma—that makes it an essential front-to-back read for every true horror reader.
Billed as “Six Stories from the Border of Hell,” Wounds comprises four short stories and two novellas that cover a wide range of genres. While they all qualify as horror, there’s a definite difference between, say, the arch New Weird flavor of “Skullpocket,” about a horrific game and a religion centered on maggots, and the True Detective-meets-Clive Barker gothic of “The Atlas of Hell,” which delves into the darkness with an obsessive rare book dealer, that allows Ballingrud to paint wild and grotesque landscapes across the page.
Even in the vast reaches of his considerable imagination, you’ll find a certain degree of restraint. The stories in Wounds are disturbing and occasionally incredibly violent, but apart from several gruesomely comic moments in “Atlas” and some descriptions of the sort of body horror favored by Hell’s denizens, the book never goes particularly over-the-top (for this seasoned horror fan, anyway). When something horrible happens, Ballingrud’s ability to walk just up to the line of excessive without stepping over it gives the collection a wonderfully visceral quality—intense enough that you might need to take a breather now and then, but not so gory that less steel-stomached readers won’t be repulsed. (Whether that sounds like a pro or a con says a lot about who you are as a reader.)
As unknowable as are the horrors of Hell, the more of Wounds you read, the more familiar Ballingrad’s take on it will become, as the connective tissue both thematic and literal emerges. Wounds appear as a kind of pattern, almost every story is driven by an obsessive form of love (the Imp in “The Diabolist” even claims to hail from “the love mills”), and the ever-encroaching threat of damnation grows more and more prevalent, until eventually Hell itself actually invades Earth. The stories also connect in other odd ways, with an offhand comment in one leading to a more tangible plot point in another—tantalizing hints that add to the greater picture of Hell as a place of unknowable horror and spreading corruption.
It all culminates in “The Butcher’s Table,” a towering dark fantasy epic involving pirates, forbidden love, and secretive cults that fills in a lot of the blanks between the other stories, but also avoids the trap of over-explaining. “Butcher’s Table” links the other five stories together into a more cohesive whole, acting as kind of a wraparound narrative that provides a glimpse across the borders of a land the rest of the book only hinted at. It’s a book that encourages a return trip to Ballingrud’s twisted settings, as the earlier stories reveal unexpected depths and deeper terrors once you know a little more about where they are coming from.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its relatively compact length, Wounds offers a viscerally intense reading experience. Ballingrud’s bleak, complex portrait of a world slowly being overrun by demonic powers is high-octane nightmare fuel, full of enough unnerving imagery to delight those with a taste for the unknowable.