The first time I heard the name “Nathan Ballingrud”, it was in the fifth edition of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series. I knew nothing of the author going in; at the time he was just another heading on the table of contents. His story “Wild Acre” was towards the back of the collection, and I came to it with no expectations and an open mind.
At the time, I was working in a dingy office and my lunches were sometimes spent in a cramped closet space fitted with a glaring fluorescent light. This is the spot I chose to read my books in relative peace and quiet, tomb-like though it was. For an hour on that fateful day, I was trapped in that little room with nothing but “Wild Acre” to keep me company. After I finished, I resolved to message Nathan as quickly as I could to let him personally know how much I enjoyed it.
Though “enjoyed” isn’t really the right word, at least not entirely anyway. “Wild Acre” didn’t feel like just a story to me: it was a raw blister on someone else’s heart, and as it progressed I could feel mine beating in sympathetic pain. I saw people I knew and people I could never be, but they were all real, every one of them written with such crystalline honesty that it brought an immediacy and intimacy to the narrative that I hadn’t felt in some time.
When I was younger, I caught a baby hammerhead shark while fishing in the Gulf. Afterward as it lay on the driveway of our home, I petted its cold little body, quietly admiring my accomplishment. The placoid scales on a shark’s skin, if rubbed in the wrong direction, can be particularly abrasive. To my surprise and small horror, my hand was soon streaked with blood. Reading “Wild Acre” brought me back to that moment and I found myself asking the same question:
How can this hurt me?
The story follows the thorny path tread by Jeremy, the owner of a construction company, who is recuperating from the traumatic deaths of two friends as the result of an attack by a werewolf. It sounds horribly pat when described in plain terms, but in Ballingrud’s hands the brutal scene manages to maintain an air of gruesome awe:
Dennis is on his back, his body frosted by moonlight. He’s lifting his head, staring down at himself. Organs are strewn to one side of his body like beached, black jellyfish, dark blood pumping slowly from the gape in his belly and spreading around him in a gory nimbus. Renaldo is on his back too, arms flailing, trying to hold off the thing bestride him: black-furred, dog-begotten, its man-like fingers wrapped around Renaldo’s face and pushing his head into the floor so hard that the wood cracks beneath it. It lifts its shaggy head, bloody ropes of drool swinging from its snout and arcing into the moonsilvered night.
Dennis’ pleas to Jeremy to shoot the monster go unheeded; Jeremy races back to his truck and speeds away, never touching the fully loaded rifle that sits in the cab. From here one might envision the story detailing reports of more bizarre deaths in the area, Jeremy seeing weird figures that may or may not be shapeshifters, maybe even a nice melty transformation scene in the Bottin or Baker tradition.
Don’t count on it.
After this blazing scene of fantastic violence, the supernatural only makes the faintest of whispers in the ensuing pages. Instead, Ballingrud hones his focus in on the realistic aftermath of what such an attack would have on its survivors: Jeremy, the only witness to the horror, as well as his wife and the families of his friends, the poor souls who feel the ripples of that horror and end up suffering for it. Jeremy’s company had already been going under before the incident, but now the gory “animal attack” ceases all further work on the community that was to be Wild Acre. Jeremy must not only now contend with his own PTSD and mountains of piling debt but also face the mourning family members who he knows in his heart view him as the man who did nothing to save their fathers and husbands.
These everyday confrontations, the perfect awfulness and discomfort of having to be human and abide by the social conventions of humanity, are the real horror at the core of “Wild Acre”. (Even the title itself seems to speak to the primitive tracts lurking within our own souls.) As Ballingrud wrote in his essay “Domestic Horror”, the most poignant moments of fear come from the “sound of somebody crying in another room,” the knowledge that our loved ones are helpless in the wake of a power that is greater and darker than they, whether that power be a ravenous monster, or us.
Ballingrud’s ear for the rhythms of passionate, fiercely upsetting interactions is amply demonstrated throughout the story. Take the moment Dennis’ widow tries asking Jeremy for money in the wake of the foreclosure on her house:
“I just need a little so we can stay some place for a few weeks. You know, just until we can figure something out.”
“Becca, I don’t have it. I just don’t have it. I’m so sorry.”
“Jeremy, we got no where to go!”
“I don’t have anything. I got collection agencies so far up my ass… Tara and I put the house up, Becca. The bank’s threatening us, too. We can’t stay where we are. We’re borrowing just to keep our heads above water.”
“I can fucking sue you!” she screamed, slapping her hand on the table so hard that the glasses toppled over and spilled orange soda all over the floor. “You owe us! You never paid Dennis, and you owe us! I called a lawyer and he said I can sue your ass for every fucking cent you got!”
The silence afterward was profound, broken only by the pattering of the soda trickling onto the linoleum floor.
If you can make it through this and the other scenes like it in “Wild Acre” without exhaling a big gust of sustained breath afterward, you may already be dead.
According to Ballingrud, there have been some who’ve commented that “Wild Acre” could just as easily have been about a bear mauling instead of a werewolf attack for the way that everything eventually pans out. And though they may be technically right, to do that would in fact rob the story of its most powerful theme. Jeremy spends the duration of the tale in a state of shock at turns nervous and numbing. He has nightmares; he wets the bed; he overeats and gains weight. He becomes a shell of his former self, a man emotionally neutered by a beast. It is only during a confrontation with one of his wife’s sexually abusive co-workers—the boiling point of his rage and impotency and sadness—that Jeremy “reclaims” his manhood, but what he truly ends up doing is donning the mantle of the werewolf itself, washing himself in the comfort of physical violence, a lone figure of destruction oblivious to the objecting masses around him.
The story’s ending is both a horrible cosmic joke and life-affirming in its own stinging way. It tells us that our existence is made up of isolated incidents—some meaningless and others that mean everything—and that sometimes, no matter how much we may wish for them, we won’t be given any second chances.
(A version of this essay originally appeared as part of the “Cold Print” column from bare•bones e-zine.)
Visions Fading Fast (Pendragon Press, 2012)
North American Lake Monsters (Small Beer Press, 2013)
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 5 (Nightshade Books, 2013)
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.