“Carlos had never married; he’d become so acclimated to his loneliness that eventually the very idea of human companionship just made him antsy and tired.”
– Nathan Ballingrud: The Maw
Ever thought about the apocalypse after the fact? Ever thought about a zone of strangeness where malformed creatures stalk the world stitching together death in twisted combinations that only a demented follower of Josef Mengele could appreciate? Welcome to the Hollow – a zone of uninhabitable chaos, a fragmented nightmare located on the edge of nothingness and delirium. A place where street cleaners wander the back alleys with wheelbarrows filled with parts of the unmentionable dead, and inhuman surgeons eight-foot tall sew impossible flesh to the nightmares of sad lullabies from hell . Here we meet an old man and his guide, Mix “a girl with a shaved head, dressed in a dark blue hoodie and jeans,” with a sharp cynical mind and a cold heart whose bravado is more survival mechanism than the harsh truth of her deeper fears of being human.
This is a tale of love and loss, of the misery and the pain of existence, of the beauty of sound and the call from the darkness of absolute loneliness. It’s the story of an old man and a dog whose only reason for being a sense of obstinate need; a love that is already in itself a betrayal. At the heart of it the tale is a young girl’s need to decide once and for all if she will remain human and care, or will she give in and cross over to the dark side of inhuman indifference as absolute as the universe itself. In the end what brings them all together is a “sound coming through that great, open throat in the ground, barely heard but thrumming in her blood, had called it here. She felt it like a density in the air, a gravity in the heart. She felt it in the way the earth called her to itself, with its promise of loam and worms, so that she sat down too, beside them but apart, unwelcome in their reunion.”
Some think we’re beyond redemption, while others still manifest the bullheaded pride of the old guard as if it were another country. Ballingrud seems to tap into this anxiety like a master marksman whose keen eyes know just where the target is but is subtle enough to take it slow and methodical rather than full-amped. Reading The Maw is like moving through a nightmare land on steroids knowing full well that the its a suicide mission, and yet it is the only thing one can do; for in the end we are all called out of the silence by the dark transports of our own hidden desires for the unknown. Even if it takes a shaggy old dog to spur us to action.
Read my earlier review on Nathan Ballingrud: Southern Gothic Horror
You can read the Maw in the latest issue of John Joseph Adams’s Nightmare Magazine, Issue 85 (October 2019)