Nathan Ballingrud's new novella is a tightly crafted, claustrophobic tale that explores how complacency and curiosity can both lead to bad ends. Will, a bartender at Rosie's Bar in uptown New Orleans, sails through his life with no real concern for external pressures. He has his job; he has his latest girlfriend, Carrie; he has his best friend, Alicia, and her latest beau, Jeffrey. He knows his own relationship with Carrie, and Alicia's with Jeffrey, will end eventually, but he's not concerned about the specifics or about what he and Alicia will do after these latest flings end. He is even complacent about the ever-larger number of cockroaches performing mating rituals on the bar's countertops and bottles of booze. Nothing really bothers Will, and thus nothing in his life really changes.
The cockroaches are the first sign, however, that Will is too accepting of whatever is around him. The second indicator comes in the form of a group of college students who arrive at Rosie's, and whom Will serves without much questioning their legal ability to purchase alcohol. The third is the arrival of another of the bar's regulars: the upstairs tenant Eric, who is normally sweet when sober but a walking danger zone when drunk. Jeffrey's involvement in Eric's latest drunken brawl leads Will to start questioning his life in general, and a cell phone found on the floor after the underage college kids have scattered becomes the focal point for questions that lead Will to uncover an invisible horror he might otherwise never have been aware of.
These events of the first few pages set Will on a path filled with increasing external conflict: his feelings for Carrie—who has become involved with the mystery of the phone because she fears, correctly, that Will is hiding something from her—against those he holds for friend Alicia; and his habitual complacency versus his urge to check on Eric's well-being in the days after the brawl. Consequently, he begins at last to experience internal doubt, in the shape of what to do about the contents of the phone, which include some very disturbing photographs. Ballingrud builds the story's tension slowly by keeping the point-of-view firmly Will's as the protagonist becomes increasingly less complacent and thus less at-ease in his own skin.
The more Will questions what he and Carrie have stumbled into thanks to the phone, the more he makes bad decisions—and the more discordant his life becomes. This discord, this new lack of equilibrium, is all around him, from the aftermath of Eric's fight to the images on the phone, to the threat of something even more disturbing happening:
The presence of violence was in the room again, filling it like a gas. He felt ghost-like: a witness to his own life. Something fundamental was about to tip, and he waited for it with a hunger which was curiously distinct from any sense of self-preservation. What he wanted was an irrevocable action, the crossing of a bloody border. (p. 39)
Will finds himself looking for what we all look for: a defining moment, that external impetus which will tip us in a new direction ("If I could just hit the lottery, I'd . . . "; "If he asks me on a date, I'll . . . "). In real life, that clear defining moment rarely comes, and the course of our life is altered instead by small changes in the moment that we often fail to notice. Not so for Will, as any frequent reader of horror might guess. Indeed, the novel's developments come in response to Will crossing a series of bloody borders, whether he's fully aware of it at the time or not, and they are increasingly discomfiting and gruesomely described.
Whether Will realizes it or not, he has already crossed one border by this point: viewing the photos on the unnamed college kid's phone. The photos are a series, starting with what appears to be a sleeping man and gradually becoming more graphic: the man is dead, his skull stove in by blunt force trauma; he's been decapitated, his head cleaned and placed on an altar-like table; his skull has been sliced further open and his eyes hollowed out. Each photo unsettles Will further, but he's unable to look away. He's also unable to stop himself hitting "play" on a video file. The video reveals one of the college kids straightening the head on the table. "Oh my god I can feel it," she says to the camera, backing out of the shot moments before four pale fingers extend slowly . . . from inside the skull. The video ends with screaming panic from the unseen college kids, just as Will is startled by Carrie's unexpected arrival. His reaction raises her curiosity about the phone, and he has no choice but to show her the photos and video to allay her fears that he might be cheating on her.
It is a necessity in good horror fiction to immerse the reader in the protagonist's world, both the mundane and the horrific. This is where Ballingrud's strength is really evident: in his ability to tie so much grisly sensory input into his character's growth. The first half of the story is not lacking in sensory detail—the description of the cockroaches frolicking on the bar, or the organization of the apartment which Will shares with Carrie, all set the stage for what is to come by showing us just how lackadaisical Will has become about clutter and signs of decay. But the depth of detail increases once Will sees the photos on the phone. The tone of the sensory detail alters as Will's perspective shifts. He processes, absorbs, more of the regular world around him than before. As things progress towards the "irrevocable action," sound especially takes on a more important role to the reader and to Will. For instance, in the first half of the story, little mention is made of the characters' musical tastes. After seeing the photos, Will asks Alicia (notably, not Carrie) to join him on a late-night jaunt and he cues up a Pine song, "a sweet, quiet rumination which filled the precarious space between them with warmth . . . " (p. 28). That warmth is something Will wouldn't have noticed a few nights earlier.
Minus its supernatural elements, The Visible Filth would still be a potent story of one man shocked out of his complacent life, finding that he's failed to ask the right questions at the right time—and consequently experiencing the complete upheaval of all he knows. The incident that incites Will's change is the simple act of invading someone's privacy, viewing personal photos on a private smartphone. This same set-up could have led the story to be a romance drama, a crime story, or even a comedy of errors. But Ballingrud uses the smartphone, which in the real world is often responsible for people noticing less about the world around them rather than more, as the entry point into the supernatural part of the story. And he uses it more than once.
That video file's final moment may be Will's first experience of the supernatural, but it is certainly not the last. Another phone, Will's own, points the way into the supernatural again when he gets a call from Garrett, one of the college kids. Only it's not Garrett on the other end—or if it is, it's a Garrett horribly transformed, for what Will hears is voice that sounds like bone being pushed through soft throat tissue, the blood welling up. And yet, even with all of the extra sensory input Will experiences as he awakens to what's really going on in the world around him, I still felt that, for most of the story, the supernatural was bleeding in from the edges rather than sitting in the center of the goings-on. For instance, near the story's end, we finally get a look at how Eric is faring post-barfight:
He was sheened in sweat. He turned his head to watch Will enter, revealing the hideous wound distorting the left side of his face. It had gotten worse. Crusted with black blood, it had swollen and dried, reopened, dried again. Flies droned around his face, strutted boldly across his skin like little conquistadors. The stink of infection stopped Will at the door. (p. 48)
This description is horrible, but hardly supernatural. And yet it feeds into the story's climax, where Will, fully immersed now and no longer ignorant of the sights, smells, and reality of the world around him, makes a return call to Garrett's phone. At this point, Will crosses his final "bloody barrier," going from someone who is acted upon to someone who acts. Recognizing the emptiness of his own life, seeing it reflected in the wreck of a person that Eric has become, Will summons the creature that has been lurking in the background for most of the story. And again, sound (that sense absent from the first half of the story) pulls the reader in: the sickening sounds of the creature combining with Eric's pained wail to create a "beautiful threnody, a glittering lament" (p. 51).
Like Will, the reader yearns for irrevocable action, that moment that will take the story into unknown territory and force us to follow along. Ballingrud provides that moment multiple times over, from the initial video file to the discovery that something's wrong with Eric, to that final moment with the phone call, shocking us free of our own complacency.
Our curiosity about the thing unseen, the thing previously unnoticed, leads us to follow Will to his bad end. That bad end, Ballingrud seems to be saying, could happen to any one of us, as we let technology and our day-to-day-grind distract us from the world around us. It's the little things we don't notice that reveal the truth of the wider world, whatever that truth may be.
Anthony R. Cardno's reviews have also appeared in Icarus and Chelsea Station. His short fiction can be found upcoming in Beyond the Sun (Fairwood Press) and Oomph (Crossed Genres). He interviews creative types at www.anthonycardno.com and can be found on Twitter as @talekyn.