Book review: Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell contains six deeply disturbing and fascinating stories. Ballingrud published five of them before, one is original to the collection. I recommend reading them in the order they’re presented. While each of them can be read (and enjoyed) on its own, reading them in order enhances the experience.
Ballingrud doesn’t waste words on unnecessary descriptions; he gets straight to the point. His writing is powerful - it creates a sense of unease and keeps you unsettled with the thought that nothing is as it seems. Instead of relying on stale tropes, he finds more creative ways to build a sense of dread.
In “The Atlas of Hell”, a back alley bookseller tries to retrieve an artifact. He finds it, but nothing goes as planned. The imagery alone stunned me. I found the plot clever and twisted. Plus, it does a great job of setting the tone of the book.
“The Diabolist” is told from the perspective of the demon devoid of any malice. It has a childlike curiosity and doesn’t really understand how others perceive it. And by others, I mean a metaphysical pathologist’s young daughter who finds her father dead. She ventures into his laboratory for the first time and discovers occult material. The demon/imp adresses her throughout the narrative. It’s one of the most memorable short stories I’ve ever read.
I found “Skullpocket” surprisingly playful. Set in a little town, it focuses on a carnival run by ghouls. It does a great job of introducing readers to ghouls’ alien lives. The tone of this story shifts between whimsical and gruesome. I liked it!
“The Maw” is probably my least favorite story here, but I still appreciate it. Full of bloodshed and mutilation, it gives disturbing glimpses of Hell that will linger in the reader’s mind long after the story’s finished.
“The Visible Filth,” tells the story of a bartender named Will who is disinterested in real-life relationships, because he doesn’t want his life to change. His relationships with people (friends and partners) are superficial and he doesn’t really want to change. Things take a wild turn when he “finds” a mysterious cell phone with disturbing content. I think it’s a brilliant tale about human connections with an expected horror twist and slow descent into madness.
I would gladly see “The Butcher’s Table” turned into a full-scale novel. It’s a stunning novella and the longest piece of the collection. A gentlemanly satanic cult called the Candlelight Society charters The Butcher’s Table, a titular pirate ship, to visit the shores of Hell for a special feast. As you can guess, the journey turns disastrous. Loathsome characters all have ulterior motives and you’ll probably root for the wrong ones. The narrative packs lots of nasty surprises. It’s excellent. Oh, and one more thing, if you’re looking for genuinely scary nautical horror, this is it.
CONCLUSION: Wonds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell is amazing. Each story forces readers to stretch and flex their imagination and to appreciate the sheer brilliance of Ballingrud’s craft. Highly recommended to readers fine with wincing in discomfort.