Authors: Nathan Ballingrud
THE VISIBLE FILTH
“This is one of those stories you read so you can get to the end so it’ll stop scaring you. The problem with The Visible Filth is that it doesn’t go away so easy. In your weaker moments some of this imagery will rise, then stick around even when you close your eyes. So go on, open this book up. You won’t be forgetting it any time soon.”
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES, AUTHOR OF THE ELVIS ROOM
“Ballingrud is a powerful, mesmerizing writer, and The Visible Filth proves he can frighten with the best of them. If I weren’t already jealous of what he can do, I would be now.”
SIMON STRANTZAS, AUTHOR OF BURNT BLACK SUNS
“Ballingrud is a master at writing about the darkness inside us. And as terrifying as it might be to see, you can’t look away or close your eyes against it thanks to his beautifully precise and evocative prose. There’s a dark heart to The Visible Filth and Ballingrud uses its blood for ink to tell a story that really gets under your skin, or rather calls to something that might already be there. Fantastic work, highly recommended.”
RAY CLULEY, AUTHOR OF WATER FOR DROWNING
“Thoroughly unsettling. Ballingrud knows exactly how to crawl his way under your skin.”
“By witnessing, we become complicit. In Nathan Ballingrud’s unsettling and captivating novella, The Visible Filth, a simple act, a bit of curiosity, turns into something much darker—a poison that seeps into our flesh, unable to look away, a plague brought forth, the page becoming our undoing.”
RICHARD THOMAS, AUTHOR OF DISINTEGRATION
“If you didn’t gag while reading The Visible Filth, you’re a tougher man than I. Ballingrud’s cautionary tale of what happens when you stick your nose where it doesn’t belong will stick with you for a long, long time.”
ROBB OLSON, BOOKED. PODCAST
“Deeply sinister, potent and grotesque.”
RJ BAYLEY, POPCORN HORROR
“This isn’t the type of horror you can easily categorize, put inside a box and say, ‘THIS. This is what makes this story scary.’ The Visible Filth is deeply unnerving and you’re not sure why. It has all the requisite thrills and chills, but it’s what’s under the surface that will be your undoing.”
JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY, LITREACTOR.COM
A This Is Horror Publication
Copyright © Nathan Ballingrud 2015
All rights reserved
The right of Nathan Ballingrud to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in Great Britain in 2015 by This Is Horror
Editor-in-Chief: Michael Wilson
Deputy Editor: Dan Howarth
Cover & Design: Pye Parr
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owners.
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
HE ROACHES WERE
in high spirits. There were half a dozen of them, caught in the teeth of love. They capered across the liquor bottles, perched atop pour spouts like wooden ladies on the prows of sailing ships. They lifted their wings and delicately fluttered. They swung their antennae with a ripe sexual urgency, tracing love sonnets in the air.
Will, the bartender on duty, stood watching them, with his back to the rest of the bar. He couldn’t move. He was bound by a sense of obligation to remain where he was, but the roaches stirred a primordial revulsion in him, and the urge to flee was palpable. His flesh shivered in one convulsive movement.
He worked the six PM to two AM shift at Rosie’s Bar, a little hole-in-the-wall tucked back in the maze of streets of uptown New Orleans, surrounded by shotgun houses settling into their final repose, their porches bedazzled in old Mardi Gras beads and sprung couches. The bar’s interior reflected its environment: a few tables and chairs against the back wall, a jukebox, ranks of stools against the bar. He often had the misfortune of minding the place when the roaches started feeling passionate. It happened a few times a year, and each time it paralyzed him with horror.
At the moment, his only customers were Alicia: a twenty-eight year old server at an oyster bar in the French Quarter, a long-time regular, and his best friend; and Jeffrey: her boyfriend of the moment, soon to be hustled into the ranks of the exes, if Will knew her at all. Jeffrey was one of those pretty boys with the hair and the lashes she liked, but he was not on her wavelength at all. Will gave him another month, tops.
“This place is disgusting,” Alicia said, watching the show from a somewhat safer distance.
“Don’t slam the bar, babe,” said Jeffrey. “It’s just bugs.”
“Fucking gross bugs who want to get busy on my bottle of Jameson.”
Will just nodded. It was, indeed, disgusting.
“You should get an exterminator, brother,” said Jeffrey. “Seriously.”
The same conversation every time. Just different faces. “Yup. Talk to the boss.”
“You know they say when you see one, there’s thousands more in the walls.”
“Oh yeah? Is that what they say?”
Alicia said, “Shut up, Jeffrey.”
She pulled his face to hers and kissed him deeply. Apparently love was in the air at Rosie’s Bar that night. Jeffrey cupped the back of her head with one hand and let the other go sliding up her leg. He was a good boy. He knew what to do.
Will waited for the roach to relinquish its claim to the Jameson, then poured himself a shot. People from Louisiana liked to call the cockroach the official state bird; they were practically everywhere, and you couldn’t worry too much if you saw one. No matter how clean you kept your place, they were going to get in. But when you got something like this, you were infested. There must be a huge nest somewhere in the wall, or underneath the building. Maybe more than one. He didn’t think an exterminator would fix this problem. The whole wall needed to be torn out. Maybe the whole building would have to be burned down to the dark earth, and then you’d have to keep on burning, all the way down to their mother nests in Hell.
The roaches made little ticking noises as they scrambled about, and he had the brief, uncanny certainty that the noises would cohere into a kind of language if he listened carefully enough.
After a few more minutes, the bugs retired to their bedrooms, and the rows of bottles resumed their stately, lighted beauty. Jeffrey had his hand in Alicia’s shirt.
“That shirt comes off, and it’s free drinks all night,” Will said.
Jeffrey pulled away, his face flushed. Alicia smoothed her shirt and her hair. “You wish, child.”
“I really do.”
Alicia circled her finger over the bar. “Shots. Line ’em up. Maybe you’ll see something before the night is through.”
He doubted it, but he poured them anyway.
Like most 24-hour bars in New Orleans, the place did a decent business even on off nights. Most of the late night clientele was made up of service industry drones like Alicia and Jeffrey, or cab drivers, or prostitutes, or just the lonely losers of the world, sliding their rent dollar by dollar into the video poker machines lined up like totems against the back wall.
A few college kids filed in, finding a table some distance from the bar. After a moment one of them broke away and approached Will with an order for the table. Will cast his eye across the bunch: three girls and two guys, including the one placing the order. Almost certainly some of them were underage. College kids usually hit the Quarter for fun, but the Loyola campus was just a few blocks away, so inevitably a few of them drifted into Rosie’s throughout the week, looking for a quiet night.
“Everybody twenty-one?” Will said.
The kid showed him his ID, sighing with the patience of a beleaguered saint. Legal less than a month.
“What about everybody else?”
“Yeah, man. Want me to get them?”
A weak bluff. Will thought about it; it was a Tuesday night, the shift was almost over, and the drawer was light. He decided he didn’t care. “Don’t worry about it.”
Someone put some money into the jukebox and Tom Waits filled the silence. The college kids huddled around the table once they got their drinks, their backs forming a wall against the world. They seemed to be fixated on something between them. They were a lot quieter than he thought they’d be, though, which he considered a blessing. The night continued along its smooth course until Eric and his buddies walked in, staining the mood. They’d obviously already been on the bar circuit that night, coming in with beers in hand, descending on the pool table. Eric lifted his chin to Will in greeting; his three friends didn’t trouble themselves.
“Hey Eric. You guys need anything?”
“We’re set for now, brother. Thanks.”
Eric was a little plug of muscle and charisma. He was the sweetest guy in the world when sober. When he was drunk, though, every human interaction became a potential flashpoint for violence. He lived in an apartment above the bar, so Will got to see that side of him a lot.
“How’s Carrie?” Alicia asked, drawing him back.
Will shrugged, feeling a surge of unanchored guilt. “She’s fine I guess. Head in the computer all the time, working on that paper she’s doing for school. Same as always.”
“You got yourself a smart one.”
Jeffrey perked up, caught in a wash of inspiration. “Hey, we should all go out sometime. Does she like football? We could go to a Saints game.”
The idea almost made him laugh. “No, man, she doesn’t like football.”
Alicia touched his hand. “That’s totally a good idea though. Let’s just hang out. I haven’t seen her in weeks. We could double date!”
“Oh my God.”
“Don’t be a dick, Will. Make it happen.”
“I’ll suggest it to her. I’m telling you, though, she’s living her school work right now. I’m not even sure she remembers my name.”
“Make it happen.”
A bottle shattered somewhere by the pool table, followed by a muffled grunt. The bar went silent except for the sound of scuffling shoes and short bursts of breath, overlaid with a jaunty dirge from The Violent Femmes. Eric and one of the guys he’d come in with were grappled together, Eric’s arm around the other guy’s neck. He hit him in the face with three quick shots. The guy gripped the jagged neck of his beer bottle and swung it around to rake it across Eric’s arm. Blood splashed to the grungy linoleum.