A new number of the series “Visioni”, Edizioni Hypnos, is about to be published. After Livia Llewellyn, Steve Rasnic Tem and Laird Barron, now it’s Nathan Ballingrud’s turn with his The Visible Filth, which I translated. I always think very interesting to know better the author whose works I’m translating, therefore I thank Nathan Ballingrud for the following interview.
Nathan Ballingrud was born in Massachusetts in 1970, but spent most of his life in the South. He studied literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at the University of New Orleans. His first book — North American Lake Monsters: stories, from Small Beer Press — won the Shirley Jackson Award, and was shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Bram Stoker Awards. His work has appeared in Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, Lovecraft Unbound, and Inferno: New Tales of Terror, among other publications.
Ideally, we start from the end of the introductory article on Nathan Ballingrud written by Andrea Bonazzi in Hypnos Magazine n° 5, where we read about a new work by Ballingrud, The Visible Filth, to be precise. In this article, Bonazzi introduces also his translation of The Monsters of Heaven, a story that won the Shirley Jackson Award in 2007 as best short-story, collected then in North American Lake Monsters: stories, which also won the same prize for the best single author short-stories collection in 2013.
The Monsters of Heaven is a tough story, which seeps suffering in a harsher way than The Visible Filth does. Both stories have at their center the complexity of human relationships; both show real women and real men, as typical in Ballingrud’s works. If we compare, in particular, the male protagonists of both stories, Brian in The Monsters of Heaven and Will in The Visible Filth, we’ll notice that we’re facing two fragile men, not completely able to take control of their life but who prefer instead to take shelter in alcohol, until a supernatural event occurs and their life changes forever. On the contrary, female characters are different: Brian’s wife in Monsters of Heaven is a woman hardened by life and selfish; while the two female figures – both main characters in The Visible Filth – Carrie and Alicia, are more sensible, they are “in the right” – we would think – logical and in any case capable of being gentle. In both case these stories make us feel uneasy, here reality is sometimes more upsetting than any other supernatural horror. And what was observed by Bonazzi for Ballingrud’s work in general suits The Visible Filth also perfectly: «The monster is already buried inside, and the unsettling coming from outside limits itself to compel us to a confrontation, unavoidable in the end».
The Visible Filth is a novella published by This is Horror in March 2015.
This is the story of a man called Will and of his descent into a nightmare. He works in a bar in New Orleans. After a violent fight he discovers a cell phone, which he decides to keep just until the owner returns. But everything changes, and the messages begin. Will has discovered something unspeakable, which is slowly crawling into the light.
Reality and horror: when, in your stories, does the one start to slip into the other?
N.B. I think they’re intertwined from the very beginning. In most of my stories, the horror comes from the people; the supernatural is there to throw it into relief, so that the characters become aware of it finally. In some cases, it offers an escape from the horror. In The Visible Filth, the supernatural horror is an outward expression of the internal grotesque.
What I perceived and struck me the most was a base concept that spreads all over The Visible Filth, enclosed in the world hollow. This world occurs not only several times, but we can also find it in the title of a poem cited by the protagonist’s girlfriend, Carrie: she’s working on a paper about T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men. This is essentially a poem of emptiness, an emptiness caused by the condition of the modern world in which men live only for themselves, failing to choose between good and evil. I thought then that you chose to cite this poem not by chance, of course, but because emptiness and hollowness are concepts and feelings, which belong in particular to the main character, Will. I thought Eliot’s poem was a kind of inspiration to you, am I correct?
N.B. You’re absolutely correct about the reasons for its inclusion. The theme of hollowness is something I wanted to hit in a couple of different ways, and I thought Eliot’s poem might be a useful flag to plant, a clear signal to readers. However, it wasn’t the inspiration. When I was thinking about Carrie -- what kind of person she is, what she’s doing with her life, the ways she and Will experience their clashes and congruencies -- I knew I wanted to make her a fairly serious student. That’s when I thought of including the reference to The Hollow Men. I almost cut the reference, because I was afraid it might be too heavy-handed.
How did the idea of this story come about? How did Will spark in your mind, and how much of your former experience as a bartender in New Orleans can we find in him?
N.B. Will is an amalgamation of a lot of people I knew in New Orleans, and he’s probably got more of me in him than I’d like to admit. There’s no shortage of selfish people, or of people who don’t take their own lives seriously. All of us have some negative characteristics, but most of us don’t think ourselves as defined by them, if we even think of them at all. Will is like that. He’s a nice guy, and he allows that to distract himself from his very serious flaws -- namely, the inability to truly empathize with anyone around him.
I found the contrast you created on the one hand between the revulsion naturally provoked – not only in the protagonist – by roaches and their kind of innate gentleness, on the other hand the contrast between the seemingly clean and pleasant appearance of the college kids, that in reality hides inside a rotten and viral ugliness, very interesting. What were the main feelings and thoughts you wanted to raise in the reader through these figures?
N.B. The roaches are the metaphor for the filth inside the characters. When you see one roach, you know it’s a sign that there are many more hidden inside the walls. They’re easy to ignore, though, if you don’t have to look at them all the time. I wanted that idea of the cockroach to serve as the underpinning of the story for the reader. When we see the clean-cut college kids -- and also when we see Will -- we see people indoctrinated into society, passing through each day without causing horror or revulsion in the people who encounter them. The ugliness is hidden. But it all comes swarming out, finally, just the roaches do. I think this is true of societies just as it’s true of people -- or insects.
Violence and shame, and hollowness as we said, seem almost tangible, almost other characters of the story. Can you tell us something about your writing process?
N.B. I’m glad to hear you say that. The atmosphere those feelings create are what I hope makes the story interesting. It’s all well and good to have a grand metaphor for the idea you’re trying to convey, but if it isn’t any fun to read, there isn’t much point. When I write a story like this I decide early on a couple of crucial details: what the emotional crux of the story is, and what the tone of the story is. With The Visible Filth, I knew I wanted the atmosphere to be heavy and dark. There had to be a sense of an indefinable menace, a fear of something vague and difficult to understand.
A narrative device which I found very fascinating is that one of the book inside another book. In this case a mysterious book appears, The Second Translation of Wounds, which drives Carrie almost to madness. It seems that a sort of mythology or a strange cult exists around this book… Do you think it could be a cue maybe for another story?
N.B. It might be! I put it in there because I like that device too, and I enjoy the possibilities it suggests. I’m certain it’ll pop up again, though I don’t know how or when just yet.
What is the Weird for Nathan Ballingrud? And how would you describe your work?
N.B. I have a lot of difficulty with this kind of question, because I tend to withdraw from questions of fictional taxonomies, or definition. When I think about what “weird” is or what “horror” is, I become fixated on the boundaries those words imply, and that interrupts my process when I’m working on something. I’ve been called a horror writer, a dark fantasy writer, and a writer of the weird, and that’s all fine. Some writers thrive in that sort of discussion; it gives energy to their work. Not me, though. I think it’s best to let other people decide what I am. I just want to focus on writing the stories.
What do you think about the actual situation of Weird and Horror Fiction in your country? Are there any other particular writers, either in the mainstream or small presses, whose work you especially enjoy and would like to recommend to our readers?
N.B. I think both weird and horror fiction are enjoying a very robust life at the moment. The small press deserves enormous credit for providing an environment for these genres to thrive. The communities that have accrued around them are, for the most part, very supportive of each other. This has allowed more esoteric and adventurous expressions of horror and the weird, which in turn bolsters the health of the field. It’s a very good time for us, creatively.
As far as writers I would like to recommend, there are so many! I’ll keep the list manageable, though. I’ll start with Leni Zumas. She’s written a novel called The Listeners, and a collection of short stories called Farewell, Navigator. A new novel -- Red Clocks -- will be released soon. Her stories are strange, funny, and sad, and I hope she gets the huge numbers of readers she deserves. Another I cannot recommend highly enough is Julia Elliot, who also has a novel and a collection of short stories out -- The New and Improved Romie Futch and The Wilds, respectively. She writes some of the most beautiful prose in American letters, and her stories are bizarre and funny and horrifying all at once. I’m terribly jealous of her. For those who are looking for the really dark stuff, I have two names: Livia Llewellyn, who has two collections of short stories out now -- The Engines of Desire, and Furnace; and Matthew M. Bartlett, author of two strange collections of stories about a radio station broadcasting from a witch-haunted New England town, called Gateways to Abomination, and Creeping Waves. They’re two of the best, and most original writers of horror fiction today.
Can you tell us something about your next projects?
N.B. I’m finishing up a novella for my next collection of stories, which will be called The Atlas of Hell, and will appear sometime in early 2018. I’m working on a novel about a colony on Mars in the 1930s, and I’m working on a book expanding the setting of my short story “Skullpocket,” in which a ghoul becomes the patriarch of a small Southern town. And there are many more on the backburner. I have enough to keep me busy for years.
Thank you Nathan Ballingrud!