“It’s my experience that we all have a secret heart, even brutes.”
This quote from Nathan Ballingrud’s Wounds not only sums up this cleverly connected collection but is also, perhaps, a comment on humanity; a theme the author has elegantly expounded through some genuinely disturbing stories. Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell is exactly as it says on the cover, and we end where we start, leaving the reader with an immensely satisfying feeling.
In “The Atlas of Hell”, we join a back alley bookseller on a doomed trip to retrieve an artefact for one of his specialist clients. He encounters a criminal whose plan is to give people in Hell a second chance on Earth. The imagery here, when he finally comes face to face with the artefact, is stunning and totally visceral. And not just here – the entire collection is a merciless assault on the senses.
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“The Diabolist” is sparse and beautifully written. A metaphysical pathologist’s young daughter finds her father dead, so ventures into his laboratory for the first time. Occult material is interspersed with finger paintings from his daughter’s time at elementary school – such a lovely detail, something Ballingrud excels at throughout. And it’s told from the viewpoint of a somewhat unusual source who eventually learns to understand love, and this gives it a level of poignancy that stays with you.
In “Skullpocket”, young ghouls break the rules of their elders. “The Maw” introduces us to Mix, a 17-year-old paid to navigate the ash-grey streets of ravaged Hollow City. She is chaperoning a client, Carlos, through a strange landscape recently and forcibly occupied by hellish beings to find his missing loved one. It’s a dangerous mission, loaded with nightmare images of homes being taken over by Surgeons.
The kids sneaking back inside started calling it Hollow City, and the name stuck. Which was just one more thing Carlos hated. The old neighborhoods had names. There were histories there, lives had been lived there. They didn’t deserve some stupid comic book tag. They had belonged to humanity once.
The evacuated locals – the lucky ones – now have to live in crowded tenements. Anger and apathy has taken hold. Their old, now afflicted neighbourhood is literally Hell on Earth. Carlos’s blind faith that he will be reunited leaves us in no doubt that this is a story of love.
“The Visible Filth” is the most realistic of all six and is unsurprisingly being turned into a film. An infestation of cockroaches search for mates among the liquor bottles at Rosie’s Bar, a 24-hour joint in uptown New Orleans. School drop-out Will works behind the bar, harbouring a secret desire for his best friend Alicia and a simmering dislike of her pretty-boy boyfriend Jeffrey. A nasty fight breaks out among the regulars but it’s over in a flash, and the trio after left to clean up the mess. Will finds a smartphone and pockets it. Mistake number one (of many). His ambitious, studious girlfriend Carrie is curious about messages on the phone… and the rest, well, it’s a must-read. Without spoiling anything for future readers, “The Visible Filth” contains, in my opinion, the best passage – in fact, the best sentence – in the book. It left my skin crawling… see if you can spot it.
Finally, “The Butcher’s Table” takes us on a diabolical voyage. Martin Dunwood, a member of a gentlemen’s club for Satanists, the Candlelight Society, meets a group of pirates in Cordova to strike a deal to procure an atlas of Hell. He has an ulterior motive, too: there’s a woman involved. This story has the air of M. R. James. Dunwood’s London, for example, is one of dark libraries and lantern-lit alleys. And I loved this small line, for example: “He was certain to grow up to be somebody’s father – that most tedious of creatures.”
He’s a pipe and brandy kind of chap, and finds himself surrounded by cannibals and criminals on the Butcher’s Table, the ship taking them over the border of Hell. The portrayal of his gross, overweight bodyguard is particularly memorable, and, as with any Jamesian story, the desires of the protagonist are never entirely achieved.
These tales are fantastical and impossible, but entirely believable. In horror fiction bordering on fantasy, I always think that making these nightmarish worlds feel feasible deserves high praise. Ballingrud does this in spades, with almost literary prose. And that these are short stories, yet connected, makes for an interesting overall effect. The individual tales themselves – warped fairytales and fables, almost – stand on their own, yet one gets the impression of having read a book of epic proportions.
The reader travels far with the inhabitants of Wounds, geographically and metaphorically. I closed the book with a feeling of exhilaration, of many miles traversed, and of having seen sights I never wish to in real life.