"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Reading: Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell By Nathan Ballingrud (2019)

New maps of Hell

By Nathan Ballingrud (2019)

Ballingrud is a careful and exacting stylist; some of his tales begin with situations that have become cliche, but he rings the changes so swiftly in each, and with prose of such dexterity, that it is a pleasure to surrender to his spell.

Ballingrud's characters in this story inhabit the lumpen criminal world of noirish you-can't-win dead-ends. An occult Travis Magee, salvager/book-collector Jack Oleander, gets pulled back into the orbit of an underworld kingpin who wants to lay his hands on an atlas of Hell.

....I keep a small studio apartment overhead, but when Patrick started banging on my door half an hour ago I took him down here instead. I don't want him in my home. That he's here at all is a very bad sign.

My place is called Oleander Books. I sell used books, for the most part, and I serve a sparse clientele: mostly students and disaffected youth, their little hearts love-drunk on Kierkegaard or Salinger. That suits me just fine. Most of the books have been sitting on their shelves for years, and I feel like I've fostered a kind of relationship with them. A part of me is sorry whenever one of them leaves the nest.

The bookstore doesn't pay the bills, of course. The books and documents I sell in the back room take care of that. Few people know about the back room, but those who do pay quite well. Patrick's boss, Eugene, is one of those people. We parted under strained circumstances a year or so ago. I was never supposed to see him again

The Kingpin sends Jack after a four-flusher named Tobias. Ballingrud's elision here is sublime: "Who knows what got into the guy. Some big dream climbed up his butt and opened him like an umbrella."

The story turns into a heart-of-darkness journey into a Louisiana swamp probably last visited by Lovecraft's Inspector LeGrasse:

....I see a row of huge, bobbing purple flowers, each with a bleached human face in the center, mouths gaping and eyes palely blind. The sight of it shocks me into silence; our guide fixes his stare on the horizon, refusing to acknowledge anything unusual. Eyes perch along the tops of reeds; great kites of flesh stretch between tree limbs; one catches a light breeze from our passage and skates serenely through the air, coming at last to a gentle landing on the water, where it folds in on itself and sinks into the murk.

The atlas Tobias is hiding in a swamp cabin turns out not to be a book at all.

...."The skull was in a black, iron box," he says. "Sitting on its side in the corner. There's a hole in the bottom of the box, like the whole thing was meant to fit around someone's head. It had a big gouge in the side of it, like someone had chopped it with something. I don't know what cuts through metal like that though. And inside, this skull . . . talking."

"It's one of the astronauts," Johnny says.

I rub my fingers in my eyes. "Astronauts? What?"

Johnny leans in, grateful for his moment. He tells us that occasionally there are men and women who wander through Hell in thin processions, wearing heavy gray robes and bearing lanterns to light their way. They are invariably chained together and led through the burning canyons by a loping demon: some malformed, tooth-spangled pinwheel of limbs and claws. They tour safely because they are shuttered against the sights and sounds of Hell by the iron boxes around their heads, which give them the appearance of strange astronauts on a pilgrimage through fire.

"I recognized the box," Johnny says. "This skull is from one of the astronauts of Hell. The box was broken, so I guess something bad happened to him."

The skull radiates violence like a diabolical Chernobyl, warping minds and the physical world around it.

Whether Oleander, like Hammett's Continental Op, can turn the tables on multiple antagonists is a solution too perfect to spoil. Let's hope Oleander returns.

But not too often

An assured story about a very uncharming nest of fiction subjects: reconciliation, children, parents, lost loves.

An epic fantasy in what I would call the "ghoul mythos." A fine addition to such short works as Duane Pesice's "Ghoul Picnic," "Meryphilia" by Brian McNaughton, and several works by Caitlin Kiernan, including "The Peddler's Tale."

....Ghouls had been living under the cities of the sunlight people for as long as there have been sunlight people, and for the most part they had kept their existence hidden. They were afraid of what would happen if they were discovered. Can you blame them for that?

Several city blocks seem to have been colonized by the forces of Hell.

....Hollow City was not a city at all, but a series of city blocks that used to be part of the Fleming and South Kensington neighborhoods, and had acquired its own peculiar identity over the last few months. Its informal name came from its emptiness: each building a shell, scoured of human life, whether through evacuation or the attentions of the Surgeons. The atmosphere had long turned an ashy gray, as though under perpetual cloud cover, even around the city beyond the afflicted neighborhood. Elsewhere in the city, lamps burned day and night; but not in here. Electricity had been cut off weeks ago. Nevertheless, light still swelled from isolated pockets, as though furnaces were being stoked to facilitate some awful labor transpiring beyond the sight of any who might venture in.

....fewer and fewer people were paying to be escorted through Hollow City, and those who were tended to be adrenaline junkies, who were likely to get you killed, or—worse—religious nuts and artists, who felt entitled to bear witness to what was happening here due to some perceived calling. It was a species of narcissism that offended her on an obscure, inarticulate level. A few weeks ago she had guided a poet out to the center of the place and almost slipped away while he scribbled furiously, self-importantly, in his notebook. The temptation was stronger than she would have believed possible; she'd fantasized about how long she'd hear him calling out for her before the Surgeons stopped his tongue for good, or turned it to other purposes.

She didn't leave the poet, but she learned that there was an animal living inside her, something that celebrated when nature did its work upon the weak. She came to value that animal. She knew it would keep her alive.

....What he saw was impossible. A man, eight feet tall or more, skinny as a handful of sticks, crossing a street only a block away with eerie, doe-like grace. He was a shape in the sodium lights, featureless and indistinct, like a child's drawing of a nightmare. He was stretching what looked like thin, bloody parchment from one streetlight to another; suspended from one end of the parchment was a human arm, flexing at the elbow again and again, like an animal in distress.

....There was nothing about this on the news. It was as though the city suffered its own private nightmare, which would continue unobserved until it could wake up and talk about it, or until it died in its sleep.

I wrote about this protean novella here.

"The Butcher's Table" is a short novel about 18th century diabolists and cannibals in high places in the British colonial and slave-owning hierarchy. And the crooks, cut-throats, and pirates they employ. (Or think they employ…) 

All have their own plans, conspiracies, and agendas, not all of them meshing. They all revolve around access to Hell and actual travel to the infernal region in the age of fighting sail.

This is an ambitious historical tale, like the historical "romances" of Conrad and Gerald Kersh. It is an audacious fictional enterprise, one to be savored and applauded.

In a breathtaking finale, "The Butcher's Table," like a Worm Ouroboros, slingshots the reader back around/forward to the collection's first story, "The Atlas of Hell."

27 November 2019

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