The Visible Filth, by Nathan Ballingrud

“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.”

For a brief slice of time, I tended bar. Oh, not in a down and dirty dive like the setting of 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.

51wTZnGf5EL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgBallingrud, 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.

Cut_Wound_Transfer_1600x[1].jpgViolence 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,
~The Bibliothecar

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Aharesia, by Natalia Theodoridou

“I remember a time when I felt lured by the world’s wonders, when I wanted to see everything,” he wanted to say. “I wanted to live more, be more. What happened to me?”

cover-vol2-issue1[1]There’s been a time or two in my adult life when I felt like I didn’t belong; more if you count my youth. I imagine both go without saying for most of us, which is what makes a theme of displacement so potentially potent. All of us are taken back to “a time when…” Once in a while, when the stars are seemingly aligned, some of us have a chance to return to a place if not a time. Of those who leap at such a rare opportunity, most discover two important truths: the stars were never aligned, not that way, and you can never, ever truly go back. Life has changed for you and the place you left. Both have had divergent sets of experiences, circumstances, and occurrences. To imagine that such a bifurcation can be undone is a daydream. World Fantasy Award-winning author Natalia Theodoridou, explores these themes in her story Aharesia, to be published this Spring by Grimscribe Press in Volume Two, Issue One of “Vastarien: A Literary Journal.” I’d like to thank Jon Padgett and Grimscribe Press for providing me with a review copy of this issue of “Vastarien” in exchange for this fair and unbiased review.

Before we go further, a word about this journal’s literary pedigree is appropriate. In the event you haven’t heard of it (for shame!) you should know that it’s the dream child of Jon Padgett, (an author I’ve reviewed here before), who is something like a literary godson of Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, in turn, found a muse early on in ole HPL, but as Jeff Vandermeer says in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Ligotti’s omnibus collection “Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe,” “…in a kind of metaphysical horror story of its own, Ligotti early on subsumed Lovecraft and left his dry husk behind, having taken what sustenance he needed for his own devices. (Most other writers are, by contrast, consumed by Lovecraft when they attempt to devour him.)” So, authors published in “Vastarien” are going to be playing in Ligotti’s sandbox more than Lovecraft’s, but there are non-Euclidean corners overlapping to be sure.

The Road HomeAharesia opens with a young couple, Nathan and Sammie, on a road trip back to Nathan’s hometown, Aharesia. There’s only one problem, as the story’s memorable opening line proclaims, “Except the town wasn’t there.” No map app, no GPS can seem to find it. The only evidence that it exists at all are Nathan’s clear and fond memories of growing up there. His brother and he, riding bikes. Fossil hunting. Eating pancakes at Finn’s with his mom. Swimming in the lake with Brandon. Or was it the pool? Nathan’s memories wobble a bit. But at the same time, they’re so clear, so real. Sammie wonders if he’s suffering a breakdown. For as much as she loves him, she knows he’s coming apart at the seams. Has been, since she met him when she was working at a diner. “He’d shown up, sat at the bar. Lots of guys who hung out there looked haunted, but not the way Nathan did. He’d walk into a room and you’d say, that’s a broken man. Just her type. He hadn’t asked for coffee that day. All he’d wanted was water, so Sam had kept serving him as he emptied glass after glass.” The whole story is told in this dreamlike fugue where reality wavers, an image glimpsed through deep water. The truth dances like a tiny tropical fish, drawing you in with its vibrant colors and then flitting away just as you think you’ve got your hand on it.

IMG_1989_1024x1024[1].jpgAt last, a signpost in the wilderness, as the pancake house Nathan recalls having dined at with his mother “appeared on the right, its green triangular roof and yellow-trimmed letters exactly as he remembered them.” The waitress even recognizes him and things are looking up as they speak of the past. But sore subjects are quickly poked. The waitress, apologetic, “…bit her lip and perked up. “Look at me, dredging up the past like that. No use, I suppose. Your mother knew not to speak about things that are better left unsaid.”” Theodoridou consistently and effectively sprinkles her narrative with these nuggets of malice, almost like lures, that leave the reader nervous and wondering.

As a nightmarish transcorporeality begins to affect Nathan, things dive quickly down. For all she tries, Sammie cannot help him. “No, you don’t understand,” he shouted. “It’s not real, none of it is real, I’m not who you think I am. I’m not who I thought I was.” The whirlpool does not relent, spiraling towards a shocking ending that will leave you gasping for air and answers.

Aharesia is going to appeal to Lovecraft fans, calling to mind stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The White Ship, and The Night Ocean. I’m less versed in my Ligotti (which I am slowly correcting) but of the stories I have read, I found similar themes of displacement and memory in a haunting little tale that creeps up on you afterwards called The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise. The writing, as should be evidenced by the quotes I’ve given you, is superb. Though it is not lush, it is sneakily substantial. She knows how to string you along, gathering your interest, sparking your curiosity, stretching your sense of normality, and then, with a short sharp pain, she sets her hook and you’re hers. Her dialogue is believable. Never once was I taken out of the story to scratch my head at some unrealistic conversation. The characters she draws are likewise believable and real. Their pain is palpable. Their search for what they’ve lost is melancholic. I could close my eyes and be in the booth behind them at the pancake house, guiltily eavesdropping on their misery.

2937692939_c323035788_z[1].jpgAs is usually the case when it is not immediately obvious, I am curious about the title. A quick Google search reveals nothing (which, frankly, I should have expected, given the plot). But the first four letters triggered something in my way-way back memory. It sounded to me like a Hebrew word, so I checked that out and, in fact, it is. Ahar is a word found in Biblical Hebrew meaning “to tarry or delay,” frequently with a sense of leaving something behind or discarding something. I have no idea if this was in the author’s mind when she composed the story or titled it, but I found it surprisingly apropos, for what it’s worth (which may be exactly nothing).

This issue of Vastarien also contains stories by Gemma Files, Matthew M. Bartlett, S. E. Casey, as well as the poetry of K. A. Opperman and scholarly work by Gwendolyn Kiste and David Peak. Everything I’ve read in “Vastarien” has been of the highest quality, combining an enviable erudition with exemplary Ligottian homage. An annual subscription, delivered to your e-reader, costs only $13.50, and were I you, I’d subscribe today so you get this issue when it is released very soon. It’s very much worth it.

This review was composed while listening to “Curse of the Daimon” by Daemonyx (Matt Cardin).

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

For the sake of clarity: “There were no signs for Aharesia Town on the way.”