Here come the monsters: short story collection by Easthampton’s Small Beer Press is turned into TV series

  • The 2013 story collection “North American Lake Monsters” by Easthampton’s Small Beer Press has a new edition that uses the title of the Hulu series based on the book. Image courtesy Small Beer Press

  • North Carolina author Nathan Ballingrud, a Massachusetts native, says seeing his work translated to the screen “is the sort of thing obscure writers dream about.” Image courtesy Nathan Ballingrud/Small Beer Press

  • Nathan Ballingrud’s 2013 short story collection won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award and was short-listed for other honors, including a Bram Stoker Award. Image courtesy Small Beer Press

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 01, 2020

Small Beer Press in Easthampton has earned a reputation over the years as a well-regarded independent publisher of what the Boston Globe has called “unusual, genre-defying works that might have trouble finding a home elsewhere…. works [that] are so unique that they could come from nowhere else, a singularity that fosters the same kind of loyalty music buffs feel toward their favorite record labels.”

Now some of that work is likely to find a wider audience: The press’ 2013 collection of short stories by North Carolina writer Nathan Ballingrud, “North American Lake Monsters,” has been turned into an eight-episode TV anthology called “Monsterland” that will debut Oct. 2 on Hulu.

Ballingrud was born in 1970 in Massachusetts (Wareham) but has lived most of his life in the South. But during a recent phone call, he said he’d known Kelly Link and Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press for years through book conventions, writing workshops and the fantasy/horror/science fiction circles they’re part of. When he began looking for a publisher for his collection, “They contacted me and said they’d like to work with me, and I was thrilled to work with them.”

“North American Lake Monsters,” his first book, won a Shirley Jackson Award and was short-listed for a number of other honors. “For an independently published book of short stories in the horror genre, it’s done pretty well,” said Ballingrud, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. “Gavin and Kelly had a lot to do with that.”

Link, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author from Northampton, says she was drawn to Ballingrud’s work both because of the quality of his prose and the “clarity and empathy” he brings to his characters, many of whom are struggling in their lives. “You really learn to feel for them and understand what they’ve experienced, how life has shaped them,” she said.

Some critics likened the tales in “North American Lake Monsters” to those of Raymond Carver, but with fantastical elements, as small-town people, living hardscrabble lives mostly in the South, are forced to confront the darker parts of their psyches.

As the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote, “What sets this collection of short stories apart is the way the supernatural, magical and horrific are utilized like a light source, illuminating dark places while casting even deeper shadows. Ballingrud’s writing is piercing and merciless.”

Indeed, the characters in Ballingrud’s stories can fall hostage to crippling emotions as they contemplate sorrow, loss and the way love twists their lives. A single mother “wishes death” on the father of her daughter for abandoning the family: “She willed it along the miles and into his heart.” A troubled teenager curses his weakness after narrowly avoiding a fight with a co-worker in a kitchen restaurant: “[H]is heart threw out flaming arcs of rage and frustration like an effulgent red star.”

Meantime, strange creatures and occurrences shift the stories in unexpected directions. In “The Monsters of Heaven,” a husband and wife, estranged after their son is kidnapped, are slowly drawn back together after they take into their home one of the fragile, semi-humanoid creatures called “angels” that have been appearing all over town. But what exactly is the creature doing to them, and what does it represent?

From book to screen

Though the Hulu adaptation of the collection will differ from his stories, Ballingrud says he’s comfortable with the changes: “I went into the process knowing full well it would not just be a filmed version of my book. It’s a different medium, with different writers involved and a different way of storytelling.”

Hulu has released few details of the upcoming show, but a trailer appears to emphasize the horror and supernatural side of things. A brief description of the anthology from the streaming service says “Through encounters with Gothic beasts, including fallen angels and werewolves, broken people are driven to desperate acts in an attempt to repair their lives, ultimately showing there is a thin line between man and beast.”

The series has been created, written and executive-produced by playwright and screenwriter Mary Laws; another executive producer is British-Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari. Ballingrud says the project team has been great to work with, offering him drafts of their scripts to review, having him sit in on some of the initial scriptwriting sessions and sharing some working film footage with him.

“They’ve been very welcoming,” Ballingrud said.

In one of a number of recent online interviews, Laws described herself as a huge fan of “North American Lake Stories” and said “Monsterland” hews more to “the ‘weird fiction’ sub-category of the horror genre…. [it] invites its protagonists to be awakened and enlightened by the monsters they encounter, rather than merely horrified.”

Laws also said the series includes a mix of straight adaptations of Ballingrud’s stories and other episodes that were “inspired by the collection…. [S]ome of the story will understandably morph and change as you translate a work of fiction into television. But if you keep the heart of the story intact, then you’ve done your job.”

For her part, Link said she’s thrilled to see Ballingrud’s work translated to the screen: “It’s pretty exciting to think that work we published has been a source for another way of telling the stories and for new creativity.” (She notes that a short story from an earlier Small Beer Press collection, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, was turned into the 2016 sci-fi film “Arrival.”)

This isn’t the first time Ballingrud’s work has been turned into film, either. His second story collection, “Wounds: Six Stories From the Border of Hell,” included the novella “The Invisible Filth,” which was turned into the psychological horror movie “Wounds.” That film was directed by Babak Avari — one of the co-producers of “Monsterland” — and played at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival before later airing on Hulu and Netflix.

Having his fiction translated to the screen “is the sort of thing that obscure writers dream about,” Ballingrud said with a laugh.

The author, who recently completed a novel and has begun a second one, says as much as he’s drawn to horror, he’s also simply a fan of good writing — he lists novelists Richard Ford and Annie Proulx as inspirations — and storytelling that probes the darker currents of life as a way of bringing greater understanding and empathy to the human experience.

“When I can recognize parts of my own life in that kind of writing, it makes me feel less alone — it makes me feel better,” said Ballingrud, who has worked as a cook for off-shore oil rigs and as a waiter and bartender. “There’s something to be said about taking hard times and trouble and organizing it into artistic expression, something that’s redeeming.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. Nathan Ballingrud’s website is nathanballingrud.com.