Nathan Ballingrud lives in Asheville, NC, with his daughter. His short stories have appeared in SCIFICTION, Inferno: New Tales of Terror, Lovecraft Unbound, Teeth, and other places. Several stories have been reprinted in various Year’s Best anthologies, and he won the Shirley Jackson Award for “The Monsters of Heaven.” He can be found online at nathanballingrud.wordpress.com. His “The Monsters of Heaven” appears in Creatures.
What was the first monster movie that scared you?
It was the Tobe Hooper-directed ‘Salem’s Lot, the tv miniseries starring David Soul. My brother and I watched it together, and I can’t remember ever having been more scared in my life. I remember, to this day, the chill of seeing that body underneath the sheet in the hospital slowly begin to rise as Soul’s character makes a cross out of two tongue depressors and recites the Lord’s prayer in a mounting panic; or that scene where the vampire is in the creaking rocking chair, his eyes glowing red in the twilight, saying, “Look at me, teacher!” Holy Christ, it still gives me goosebumps. My mother worked the night shift in the hospital in those days. She gave my brother and I each a cross so we could protect ourselves while she was gone. I think she felt fairly horrible for letting us watch that show when she knew she had to go to work, but my brother and I adored it. The fear was very, very sweet. I’ve been an addict ever since.
Does a great monster have to evoke pity as well as fear?
Not at all. It certainly can — Frankenstein’s monster and Lon Chaney’s werewolf are classic examples of this — but to me the most effective monsters evoke no pity at all. Their logic is too alien; it is impossible to feel pity for them because they are incapable of feeling pity for us. Once again, I think of Stephen King’s vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot: there’s nothing in there that will love us, or show us mercy. There is just this black hunger. This is why a real, well-conceived vampire can still terrify, despite the best efforts of contemporary culture to neuter them. Zombies can have the same effect. And this is in part due to the fact that they inhabit bodies we used to love: our parents, our children, our dearest friends. We want to feel pity, and even more importantly, we still expect them to feel pity for us. It’s inconceivable that they do not recognize us on some fundamental level. That some lingering love will not stay their hand. It’s that sudden absence of pity that makes them truly horrifying. It’s the horror of realizing that you mean nothing, after all. You’re just meat.
If you could be a monster, which one would you choose, and why?
I would be a werewolf. That may not be very original, but I don’t care. Werewolves have always been my favorite monster. I think they’re terrifying, for one. I don’t see them as the furry-faced muppets of the old Universal horror movies; I see them as great, bristle-haired beasts, their fur matted and filthy, their breath rank, their muscles trembling with rage. I love the idea of surrendering to rage, of giving in to the violent dream. So much of life is repression. So many words bitten off before we can speak them, so many deserving necks left unthrottled. The idea of letting that rage run rampant, of feeling bones break between my teeth, is a little intoxicating.
King Kong or Godzilla?
Godzilla, no question. King Kong is innocent. He’s kidnapped and ill-treated and he fights back and he gets killed for it. Godzilla, though. Godzilla is retribution. Godzilla is alien, and strange. Godzilla is our own evil come back upon us. King Kong wants to be free, he wants to go home. Godzilla wants to burn us all.
What are the challenges of writing about a monster, as opposed to showing it on film?
Well, we don’t have the benefit of a good soundtrack! But actually I think the challenges are very similar; we just have to meet them with different tools. The one I spend the most time thinking about is not how to depict them, or make them scary, because that’s just done with language, and I trust myself enough with language that I usually just walk into a paragraph blind, and improvise; I spend the most time thinking about how to present them in a way that’s new, or new enough to maintain interest. And sometimes that means rejecting the modern interpretations of a monster and going back to its rougher origins. Sometimes that means telling a different kind of story about the monster, shifting the narrative angle just enough so that the sort of conclusion readers have become conditioned to expect, and which can bleed the life right out of a story, is not at all what they get. I like to leave them in a different place than they thought they were going. In the case of the monster in this story, “The Monsters of Heaven,” I decided not to spend any time trying to figure out the monster at all. It’s only role was to be something the people in the story react to; they impose their own ideas onto it, according to the fear and the guilt they already carry. The role it plays in the end is quite different than the role a monster traditionally plays.
Who are the new monsters of the 21st century? Recommend a monster book/story from the past ten years.
I think it’s way too early to tell. So far we seem to be obsessed with taming the monsters of the last century: turning them into romantic heroes, or making them private detectives or whatever. It’s all very cynical and grossly unimaginative. And cowardly, to be frank. There’s still so much fuel in these monsters to do the jobs they were meant to do for us. I think zombies became popular as culturally we began to think of ourselves in terms of demographics, as units of a consumer- and advertising-driven economy, and as progressive movements of the latter half of the twentieth century forced cultures to engage with each other in new and disorienting ways. We began to think of mass populations in a new way. I think the monsters that will come to dominate the public consciousness in the future will also derive from geopolitical influences: water shortages, famine, pandemic, and the rabid nationalism that these things will catalyze.
As far as recommendations, the best monster story I’ve read recently is a new one from Livia Llewellyn, called “And Love Shall Have No Dominion.” It’s collected in John Skipp’s anthology, Demons. To give it a cruelly reductive summary, it’s essentially about a demon who falls in love with a human woman. The story is horrifyingly brutal, gorgeously written, and a genuinely nuanced look at what love might look like, and might feel like, to something that literally comes from Hell. I’ve read nothing else like it. Seek it out. It’s one of the best horror stories I’ve read in some time.