Asheville-based author Nathan Ballingrud is unapologetic about being labeled a horror writer.
“It’s not a thing I consciously think about. I grew up reading it — I just love it,” Ballingrud says. “That’s just the natural bent of my imagination. I don’t think, ‘I’m going to write a horror story.’ I think, ‘I’m going to write a story,’ and usually that’s how it comes out.”
Following through on those instincts has earned Ballingrud widespread acclaim and yielded some impressive results on the small screen. In 2019, Wounds, a feature film adaptation of his novella, The Visible Filth, premiered on Hulu and internationally on Netflix. And on Friday, Oct. 2, his Shirley Jackson Award-winning horror anthology North American Lake Monsters is scheduled for release on Hulu under the title “Monsterland.”
“[‘Monsterland’] was a direct result of Babak Anvari, who directed Wounds,” Ballingrud says. “When they were getting the movie ready, he read … North American Lake Monsters and decided to option that, too, with the idea of turning it into a series.”
Starring Kelly Marie Tran (The Last Jedi), Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Jonathan Tucker (Showtime’s “City on a Hill”) and Taylor Schilling (Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”), “Monsterland” is about flawed people whose lives intersect with supernatural horrors, forcing them to face demons both figurative and literal. The eight-episode anthology features four stories adapted from North American Lake Monsters, as well as four complementary stories by other writers. Ballingrud’s contributions are “You Go Where It Takes You,” “The Good Husband” and “The Monsters of Heaven.” “S.S.” also makes it to the screen, though as what the author calls “a loose adaptation” — part of an overall collaborative adventure of translating his material to a different medium.
“Last year, [Hulu] brought me out to the writers’ room for the first two weeks,” he says, where he discussed the stories and helped map out the proper pacing and consistent internal logic. “And that was extremely cool. I was really impressed and inspired by the unselfish way that all these writers were just throwing ideas out there as fast as they could.”
As for the four as-yet unfilmed stories in North American Lake Monsters, Ballingrud says fans will just have to cross their fingers for a series renewal: “If there’s a second season, it’s likely that a few of them will be selected for adaptation, along with more original stories. That’s speculation on my part, though. Those decisions will be made by the showrunner, Mary Laws. There hasn’t been any official talk about it. The first season has only very recently been finished, and getting that done has been everyone’s sole focus.”
The 49-year-old author says he’s still new to the filmmaking process and that witnessing his creations move from the page to the screen is a unique thrill. “I think the first time it struck me was when I was visiting the set [of Wounds], and Armie Hammer was there saying words that a couple of years earlier I’d written while sitting on my couch,” he says. “That was kind of surreal.”
Brave new worlds
Meanwhile, Ballingrud’s first full-length novel, The Strange, is slated for publication in 2021, he says the story is “very different” from his prior work. It takes place on Mars in the 1930s, when colonizers from Earth — including protagonist Anabelle Crisp — lose contact with their home planet.
“The novel kicks off with some raiders from outside the city robbing the diner where [Anabelle] works, beating her father and stealing, among other things, the last recording she had of her mother,” says Ballingrud, adding that the matriarch was visiting Earth when communications between the two planets ceased. “So she goes out after them to get it back. It’s about losing things that feel like it’d kill you to lose, and about changing to fit into a world you never thought would come. It’s not a horror novel, strictly — I think of it as a dark fantasy. And even though the protagonist is a teenager, it isn’t a YA book.”
Ballingrud has lived in Asheville for much of his life. He graduated from Asheville High School, and although he moved to New Orleans after attending college at UNC Chapel Hill, the mountains were never far from his mind. The area continued to feature in his prose, and, in 2005, he returned to the region to be closer to his family.
“The title story of North American Lake Monsters was set in Appalachia,” he says. “I wrote that while I was in New Orleans, but I think of myself kind of like a sponge in a sense that I kind of take on the flavor of wherever I am, so I started writing a lot more about [Western North Carolina] once I moved back here. My second novel, Moon Country, despite the title, is an Appalachian story. At least it starts in Appalachia.”
Ballingrud says that although the bulk of the work-in-progress is about a road trip across the U.S., he wanted to write a story about Southern characters and dwell on the flavor and culture of Southern Appalachia in particular.
“I like the people here, I like the way the language sounds and I love the way the land itself looks and feels and smells,” he says. “I’d like to translate some of that sense into the book, to give people who don’t live here an idea of it — one that isn’t a TV caricature.”