In January I sat in the Metropolitan Holiday Village 4 Cinemas at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and, over the course of 94 minutes, fell head over heels in love. The object of my affection? Babak Anvari’s Wounds, a follow-up to the filmmaker’s excellent 2016 Djinn horror film Under the Shadow and an adaptation of Nathan Ballingrud’s novella The Visible Filth.
In the movie, Armie Hammer stars as Will, a New Orleans bartender who is dating a college student played by Dakota Johnson but spends his nights trying to woo one of his bar’s regulars (played by Zazie Beetz). One night, after a violent scuffle among a handful of the bar’s patrons, Will discovers a cell phone left on the floor by a group of underage students. Curiosity gets the better of Will after the phone begins receiving strange texts from somebody claiming to be in danger. After hacking the phone, Will discovers it is full of strange videos and photos of disembodied parts of humans, hideous wounds and what appears to be full-blown supernatural shenanigans. From there, the movie descends into pure madness, with Hammer delivering a fantastic performance as somebody quickly losing his grip on reality. A cross between Hellraiser and The Ring, Wounds is a briskly paced supernatural freak-out with some weirdo worldbuilding involving the idea that you can commune with angels through the worship and devotion of raw, gaping wounds. Like I said, crazy stuff.
I loved the movie deeply but I couldn’t help but feel I was missing out on something. The film moved so quickly, delivered so many insane developments that I felt like there was something going on that, in a sleep-deprived state that I often find myself in at film festivals, I overlooked or blinked through that would have answered some of the questions the movie left once the credits rolled.
On the walk back to my hotel, I looked up the novella on Amazon and, seeing it was less than $5 via Kindle, I snatched it up in a hurry. On the flight home from Sundance, I devoured the novella - finishing it before my plane hit the ground back in Houston. If I was in love with the movie, I was smitten to death with the novella. Ballingrud’s prose was full of equal parts wit and poetry, creating an intoxicatingly sinister world through which his characters stumbled. The Visible Filth was great and I wanted more.
This past April, Ballingrud released Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell, a collection including The Visible Filth. The collection is, hands down, one of the best short story collections I have ever read. Ballingrud has created, with Wounds, a deep and exciting mythology in which Hell is very much a real place and it’s surprisingly easy to get there. From Satanists to cannibals to pirates to ghouls, Ballingrud’s stories are full of deadly and depraved creatures of the night but the world they live in is so fascinating, so rich in detail and possibility that readers will want to spend all the time they can get with these things that go bump in the night.
Ballingrund approaches his version of Hell almost more like a high fantasy storyteller than a horror writer. Don’t get me wrong - there’s plenty to be scared of within the pages of Wounds, but Ballingrund concocts an entire world of creatures, artifacts, sects and dark priests that live in and around his version of Hell. Fans of Game of Thrones will find just as much to dig their teeth in with Wounds as traditional horror fans will.
The six stories in Wounds are all directly or indirectly connected in that they exist in the same reality - a world in which New Orleans gangsters trade in artifacts stolen from Hell, where pirates plot to smuggle the damned from the other side and where an alchemist's daughter must decide what to do with the demonic imp her father summoned from the other side before he died.
The stories, some previously published in other places, when read as a whole paint a portrait of Hell, its geography and denizens. In the book’s first story The Atlas of Hell, a book collector is summoned by New Orlean’s reigning crime boss to travel into the Louisiana swamps and bring back a map that will help locate the hidden mysteries of the other side. Instead, though, he finds monstrous mutations caused by a leakage from Hell in which the dark dimension’s influence is seeping out into the swamp. If you’re a fan of Hellboy or John Constantine, you’ll find much to dig in this horror noir.
In The Diabolist, an imp, brought to Earth by a theomancer seeking to bring his wife back from the dead, narrates his introduction to humanity and his growing love for the daughter of the man who plucked him from Hell. Skullpocket, a multilayered sample of stories simultaneously across several time periods, lays out the history of a small town whose innocence has been corrupted by the presence of a group of ghoul children who wandered out from the cemetery in which they lived and made a home among the humans. In Maw, a young woman escorts a man into a pocket of Hell that has sprung up on Earth so that he may find his missing dog. Finally, in The Butcher’s Table, perhaps the highlight of the collection, a young Satanist joins a motley crew of cannibals and pirates as they journey into Hell, each group with their own motivation and willingness to betray the others.
Ballingrud, through the stories in Wounds, has created a wholly fascinating depiction of Hell, as interesting and worthy of further exploration as Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Thomas Fool series of books or Clive Barker’s Hellraiser franchise. I would kill for each and every one of the stories in Wounds to be adapted into its own movie or television property. It’s time for the cinematic universe from Hell!
It was recently announced that Ballingrud’s previous short story collection North American Lake Monsters is being adapted into an anthology television series by Wounds director Babak Anvari and Annapurna Pictures. There is no word on when Wounds will be released. It had been slated for a theatrical March release before being pushed back. Internationally, Netflix has the rights to the film and will be releasing it later this year in non US territories.
I cannot wait for audiences to have a chance to discover (and be equally confounded and thrilled) by Anvari’s Wounds but there’s no telling when audiences will have a chance to see the film for themselves. In the meantime, though, please take the time to read Ballingrud’s fiction. Wounds is a tremendous collection of weird horror and I want nothing more than this book to be the summer beach reading for a nation of fear hounds. If you’re a fan of cosmic horror but are sick and tired of reading the name Cthulhu, why not give good ol’ Satan a try and read Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell while soaking up the heat from the sun and/or the fires of damnation.