I first became aware of Ballingrud's fiction in a piece entitled 'You Go Where It Takes You,' the story of a single mother dealing with the difficulty of direction and success in life and job, and the man she meets, while on shift in a diner. I always remembered it for its pathos, its elegance, its very wise understanding on the people within it, and the understated, very real horror that fills the final passages of it. It was about serial killers, about shape changing, about the struggle of being a parent, an adult. I was pleased when I read it again, some nine years after it was published, and found that it was as good as I remembered.
It opens the collection of nine stories that is North American Lake Monsters and is an example of Ballingrud's fiction at its best. Ballingrud's work builds itself from the genre of horror as an act of symbolism for the story, one that resonates through its characters and provides meaning to what you read. It takes the simple premise of Wild Acre and makes it a powerful study of one man's response to an act of terrible violence. It turns the tragedy of an abducted child in 'The Monsters of Heaven' into an even deeper, disturbing study of the need of the parents. It paints the unflinching portrait of a recently released man from jail in 'North American Lake Monsters'. To my mind the four stories I've mentioned are the strongest in the collection, each powered by that use of symbolism, by the deft understanding of the meaning within the horror genre that Ballingrud has taken--for the three, werewolves, angels and monsters--and each are intelligent, powerful pieces of work that are worth the price of the book itself.
In 'Sunbleached' and 'The Good Husband' Ballingrud approaches vampires and zombies similarly, but for my tastes, they didn't work as well as the others. With the latter, I thought it a touch heavy, the usual delicacy of Ballingrud's work slipping, and with the former, I wanted a little more, but it was a near thing. Likewise, I quite enjoyed the ghost story spin of 'Waystation' but ended it feeling as if there was more to be told. 'S.S.', a story about a young fascist, started out very strongly, but fell flat in the final parts--it was about the mother/son relationship that came out so strong in Robert Bloch's (and subsequently, Hitchcock's film) Psycho--and 'The Crevasse', written with Dale Bailey, was the Cthulu entry of the collection. While fine, it lacked the distinctiveness of Ballingrud's voice, and this showed in sharp contrast to the other pieces in the collection.
Still, regardless of my personal likes and dislikes, all the stories were fine pieces of craft, and the truth is, you mileage on which ones you enjoy more will be based on your personal tastes. For others, I know that 'Sunbleached' is a favourite, and others still 'Waystation' and 'the Crevasse'.
Whatever your personal favourites are, Ballingrud's collection is one I recommend. North American Lake Monsters is an intelligent, powerful study of the horror genre that reveals, at its core, what it can be in the hands of a fine writer.