Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
Publisher: Saga Press | Release Date: April 9, 2019 | Pages: 288 pages
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nathan Ballingrud makes for one hell of a tour guide along the border separating life on Earth from eternal damnation. His collection, Wounds, brings together six stories all about the permeation between these two realms.
“The Atlas of Hell” kicks things off in remarkably strong fashion. Ballingrud delivers a work of Bayou noir that sees a rare book dealer pressed into service by his mob associates into recovering the atlas of Hell. There’s loads of terrific imagery here, and I flat-out loved the concept of Ballingrud’s “astronauts” from Hell. The atlas itself was totally unlike anything I had expected, and the author exhibits a knack for overturning expectations over the course of Wounds’ other stories. There were a few elements I wish were explored a bit more deeply, such as a briefly glimpsed lake monster. It’s a minor quibble, to be sure, but also a positive in its own right as I immediately wanted more!
“The Diabolist” follows the teenage daughter of a recently deceased occultist and her discovery of his misdeeds. We get a wonderfully unique narrator, and Ballingrud again subverts expectations with the particular choices he’s made here. “Skullpocket” was really the only story in Wounds that I didn’t much care for, and it felt a bit too Young Adult for me. It does have some nifty concepts, though, involving a small town and the literal monsters that live next door, the history of which is relayed to a group of children gathered to celebrate a ghouls deathday. It’s a mostly light-hearted, Gaiman-esque affair and a bit of midpoint palette cleanser before Wounds gets back to reveling in the darkness.
“The Maw” features a small town of a different sort, one that has been utterly devastated by the denizens of Hell who have crossed the border and driven out any traces of humanity. Mix, a teenage girl, agrees to help Oscar navigate the suddenly foreign terrain, acting as a coyote/tour guide as she smuggles him into this dangerous wasteland in search of his lost dog. Ballingrud, again, proves to be a master of imagery, and the work of his Surgeons is truly nightmarish stuff.
“The Visible Filth” is an incredibly potent story! Bartender Will finds a cell phone forgotten by a patron, and then makes the mistake of answering a text message on it. Darkness permeates this story the whole way through, and Ballingrud plays with our expectations of violence as the mental states of various characters shift in response to Will’s discovery of, and subsequent obsession with, this cell phone. There’s plenty of grisly imagery throughout, as well some hair-raising moments of pure haunting dread, such as a computer monitor broadcasting the image of a tunnel and what lurks inside. This one really got under my skin, and it’s a story that lingers well after you’ve finished reading it thanks to its ambiguities.
“The Butchers Table” ends Wounds on a high note as Ballingrud takes us back in time to the Colonial era, where a group of Satanists have boarded a pirate ship setting sail across the border into Hell itself, where they hope to dine with their Dark Lord. Once again, Ballingrud provides some great imagery, especially the finale’s dining hall, and while not all loose ends are tied up oh so neatly, he does bring the overarching story twisting throughout each of Wounds’ stories full circle.
As I noted above, permeability is key here and Ballingrud injects certain narrative strands in one story to be revisited later. Each of these six stories function well enough on their own, but when taken as a whole we’re presented with a richer tapestry and a fresh mythology on the nature of Hell on Earth that encompasses occult and cosmic horror, as well some dashes of fantasy here and there. The border separating us from Hell is highly diffuse, but thankfully the potent horrors pouring through are of the most engaging and entertaining sort. You might want to schedule a trip there soon.