Plain and simple, if this collection doesn’t win the Shirley Jackson Award or the World Fantasy Award for 2013, there really is no f**ing justice in the world.
I hung on every word in this collection. I was enthralled by every story, something I haven’t felt since reading M. Rickert’s Map of Dreams. Ballingrud takes some rather standard horror tropes and gives the readers more palpable and disturbing reasons to fear them. In a lot of stories, the horror/speculative element serves as a possible pathway that can be chosen by a given character. What’s disturbing is that often times that pathway represents a viable, sometimes even a preferred, life option.
I found myself giving each story a 5* rating. But that isn’t to say the collection didn’t have it its… well, I’m so reluctant to say “flaws.” That’s much too strong a word, in my opinion. Let’s say, “Things that took me out of the story for a micro-second, of which I took note before re-submerging myself back into it.” There were two.
In the cover blurb, Maureen McHugh calls the collection “Raymond Carver territory.” There’s definitely a “K-Mart Magical Realism” thing going on here. The opening scene in “The Good Husband” would’ve made me think of “So Much Water So Close to Home” even if Carver wasn’t referenced in the blurb. One of the tiny, tiny problems I had, though, was being so effectively grounded in each main character’s POV–very Carver-esque characters–that I couldn’t help but notice when these characters, as they’re written, would think in un-Carver-esque terms. A construction worker seeing something “in a rictus of pain.” An ex-con encountering something “soporific.” A homeless man smelling “the ripe, deliquescent odor of river water.” (Maybe it’s more accurate to substitute “Raymond Carver” for “Gordon Lish,” but that’s another debate altogether.)
The other matter depends on how cynical a reader one is. What I might, and in fact DO, interpret as this collection being an examination of a singular theme from multiple angles might be interpreted by another reader as “the same story over and over again.”
I feel like I’ve given too much time to these issues relative to the actual impact on my reading experience. But it’s important to note that even despite them, the quality of the stories is such that I unreservedly give this collection a 5* rating.