If you were underground, you’d look up. That’s what monsters do. They want to come up and see daylight and perch themselves on the air like birds. Ballingrud knows this. But unlike so many writers who dance with the devil simply moving to the beat, he knows the reasons for the choreography, expertly guiding the reader along the border of hell in his collection of stories, which range from a low-life book collector forced to collect a demonic severed head for a mid-level crime boss in “The Atlas of Hell”, to a bar owner who finds a lost cell phone and becomes obsessed with the meaning of the graphic images it contains, slowly abandoning his girlfriend when she needs him the most in “The Visible Filth”, to a pirate ship carrying a satanic priest to the waters of hell in “Butcher’s Table”.
In each story, the humans driving the plot sink a little deeper, becoming more and more despicable, a stark contrast to his demons and ghouls, which are perhaps best represented by the Imp in “The Diabolist,” which employs the most purposeful use of the first person collective I’ve read since Faulkner. Summoned by a deceased diabolist and discovered by his curious daughter, Allison, the Imp in the story reveals that he worked in the love mills of hell. Almost instantly he falls in love with the Allison, who accidentally frees him, and he waxes poetic as hell rises around them. “Your face was beautiful in anguish. I could see the work of my life there. The house was filled with it, Allison. Love in all its grandeur. What shapes it made of your lives. What shapes it makes, still.”
As the collection rolls on it becomes apparent that Ballingrud is drawing a clear distinction: heaven for us humans is freedom from all the pain of humanity while those without it celebrate its existence. “‘People look so normal on the outside […] ‘Inside it’s all just worms.’”
There’s a motif of skin as fruit, brains as foul and disgusting and always the notion that a humans’ true state is in the ground, decomposing, feeding the rest of the world. The most we can aspire to.
“Fix me,” one of the characters thinks as he bends over, ready to hand his body over to a demon, “Make me whole.”
With the state of the world being what it is, maybe it’s time we fork it over. Hell is empty. All the devils are here.