Nathan Ballingrud‘s fantastic novella, The Visible Filth, where fights broke out at the drop of a hat and cockroaches ride the beer taps like carnival slides. No, I tended bar for the always rich and sometimes famous (that party is a story for another time) at a swank conference and retreat center with prohibition-era hidden liquor cabinets in the walls and a crown molding that was the actual inspiration for Joe Camel. But, if there’s one thing all bartenders have in common it’s the fact that they’ve seen some shit. Heard a fair amount of it, too. So, when I heard about this bartender story from the good folks at This is Horror, I knew I had to check it out. Though the original publication, a solo novella, is out of print, it has been reprinted in this new collection by Mr. Ballingrud titled “Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell” dropping soon on April 9, 2019 from Simon & Schuster.
“There were four saved images and a video file. He stared at them a moment. He tried to come to terms with what he was seeing, tried to arrange the world in such a way that would accommodate his own mundane life, the daily maintenance of his ordinary existence, along with what he saw arrayed before him in neat little squares, like snapshots of Hell.”
Ballingrud, though born in Massachusetts, has deep ties to the South where he’s put in some hard hours. When his first collection, “North American Lake Monsters,” hit the shelves it was an instant classic of the weird and disturbing and won the Shirley Jackson Award for best debut collection. But it wasn’t until The Visible Filth that he fully utilized his bartending experience as the seedbed for a story. And be glad that he did, because this is a tale that will hold you close, settling you down like that first drink in a long night, but won’t let go until who knows how many drinks later when the room is spinning and people are talking without words. Then, when you finally manage to stumble free, blood diluting the alcohol in your veins, you’ll look around and not recognize your surroundings. You’ll ask yourself, did that really just happen, but not until after you’ve crawled your way back to consciousness.
Meet Will. Thirty-something bartender at Rosie’s, a dive tucked back off the main drag in uptown New Orleans. He’s on a first name basis with all the regulars, from the local bad boy to the off duty cop. His best friend, Alicia (who Will wishes he was fucking but isn’t), drops by pretty frequently, too, her newest boyfriend in tow. And back at his low-rent apartment, Carrie, his college-hottie girlfriend is bent over her books. Life isn’t exactly all peaches and cream for Will, but he does alright by a certain standard, and he’s content. Mostly. On a week night (pick one, they all run together), Erik the Bad Boy comes in to shoot pool with a couple of punks, but that devolves quickly into a fist fight. It turns dirty when Erik’s opponent smashes a beer bottle and swings the cut glass like a scythe across Erik’s cheek, harvesting a noticeable chunk of cheek. Lots of people jump in then and it’s over almost as soon as it started, only the room’s more decorated in blood splatter than before. Hours later, when the dust clears and Will is about to go home, he notices a cell phone amid the wreckage. Thinking it belongs to one of the college kids who popped in just before the fight broke out, he pockets it and heads home. He’ll give it back tomorrow when they come looking for it.
Violence has already spattered these pages, but it’s not until Will gets home that the weird breaks in. The phone he picked up begins beeping with incoming text messages and it sounds like someone’s in trouble. “I think something is in here with me. I’m scared.” As he interacts with the texts they get weirder and more aggressive until some picture files and a video come through. Through four sequential pictures he and Carrie witness a beheading and then, something even entirely more out of the ordinary. “The head shifted slightly, as if it heard something and had to turn a fraction to listen more closely.” There’s much more to this quote but I’m not going to share it because it’s so good and so weird that I want you to experience it for yourself in all it’s gory context and body horror glory.
Will and Carrie investigate, following up on a clue from one of the horrific pictures. A book’s spine is visible near the beheading scene, betraying the intriguing title “The Second Translation of Wounds.” Can we just take a minute to admire the inclusion of the word “second” in that title? I mean, holy hell. (That’s what separates Ballingrud’s writing from the rest of the pack here, little details like that.) As they look into the matter, Carrie gets drawn in deeper and deeper in decidedly creepy and unhealthy ways. Will makes a series of poor decisions, or you might say continues to make them, but somewhat redeems himself by keeping an eye on Erik, the cut up brawler.
At the end of a downward spiral into insanity lies an ending that leaves the reader stunned and feeling in desperate need of a shower and perhaps a prayer. The action that takes place in the end was somewhat inevitable, but I thought a different character would be more involved, so it definitely kept me on my toes. My only regret was that it wasn’t longer. I wanted more. I wanted to know more about who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing. But this is always my struggle with novellas.
Let’s talk about the quality of the writing for a moment. You’ve glimpsed it already. There’s a gritty authenticity to his descriptions and a bitter sorrow in his dialogue. He’s got his finger on the pulse of so many types of people (as perhaps only bartenders, barbers, and clergy can) which gives him the ability to weave a realistic tapestry of character, time, and place. Like here, towards the beginning, when the college kids try to buy a beer, “The kid showed him his ID, sighing with the patience of a beleaguered saint. Legal less than a month.” Every bartender has seen that look. Or here, once the fight has taken place, “The escalation of violence shifted the room’s atmosphere. It almost seemed that another presence had crept in: some curious, blood-streaked thing.” Oh, it had, too, though they knew it not. Or here, my favorite metaphor in the whole story, so perfect for the character and atmosphere, “By the time he arrived back home, the sun was bruising the sky in the east.” Brilliant. When last shift workers head home the sun does not rise. It bruises the sky. Like I said, finger on the pulse of humanity.
I haven’t said much about a Lovecraftian connection for this one because frankly, there’s not much of a direct one. It does share a theme of leaving-well-enough-the-fuck-alone as in From Beyond, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Rats in the Walls, Pickman’s Model, and countless other Lovecraftian stories. But beyond that, there isn’t much of the old gent in this one friends. It’s just a good story, and given what happens at the end, and how, I suspect it will appeal to HPL devotees nonetheless, as it did to me.
When all is said and done, aside from all the weird and the horror and the gore, there’s a melancholic fatalism that bleeds through these pages. Will hates his job, but is going no where else. He’s punching above his weight in his romance, but even so, he loves another. His only swat at changing his stars there is a pitiful, sophomoric attempt that’d be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. But even given all that, what gets him deeper and deeper into trouble here is his care and concern, even love, for others. For Carrie. For Erik. For Alicia. Anybody who’s ever even been halfway around the block knows that love can make us do strange things and can take us down some dark roads. That’s really the beautiful thing at the scarred and beating heart of this marvelous story. You should seriously pick it. You should do so quickly even, as there’s a film coming out soon directed by Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) and starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson. You know what they say about books and movies and which is better. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to see what a director like Anvari will do with it.
The rest of the collection looks pretty amazing too. I had a chance to read only one other story, The Atlas of Hell, which was weird and awesome and terrifying in a whole different way. Know though that these tales are connected more than just by being gathered together in the same collection. They share themes and explorations, dark words and cruel intents. Shaken, of course, not stirred.
I also need to say that I’m grateful to Mr. Ballingrud for providing me with a review copy of “Wounds,” for his kindness, and especially for his generosity towards a friend.
This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist “New Orleans Jazzfest 2019” complied by user Peter Blair.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,