The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud (This Is Horror, 2015)
One trend I’ve noticed almost my entire time on the Internet in places like 4chan or seedier corners of Reddit is gore posting. Not once has the idea of looking at the human body in various states of mutilation struck me as intriguing. The times I’ve accidentally stumbled upon these pictures have left me frantically trying to scrub their afterimage out of my brain.
In The Visible Filth, Will, the bartender at a dive in New Orleans stumbles across a bedazzled cell phone after a fight in his place of work. Taking it home with the intention of finding the owner he stops in his tracks when text messages and strange images are sent to the device. Eventually, Will and his live-in girlfriend see a series of images that imply a ritual killing. Despite the mystery, the story is not concerned with solving the case, rather looking at the way we get lost in despair and pain.
Will comes home to find his girlfriend lost in an internet rabbit hole of investigating a book glimpsed in one image. She is never close to finding any closure or answers and seems to be physically deteriorating as a result. Ballingrud grounds the work by continually shifting the focus back to Will’s feelings for a frequent bar patron, the person whose relationship status never seems to line up with yours. There’s also one of the participants in the bar fight who lives in an apartment over the bar. Will visits and finds the man refusing to go to the doctor as the wound from a broken glass bottle festers and grows worse. The story would also suffer if we didn’t have a believable character making believably foolish choices. In this situation, we would all be tempted with curiosity to look again. It’s a lot packed into 68 pages.
The Visible Filth delivers something imperative that a good horror story needs: Incompleteness. A piece of mystery writing gives you a series of steps and then an answer. Horror should give you some of the steps but never answer. The horror is the ambiguity of what you witness. The story behind the photos on the phone are never going to be explained, and as a result, they haunt you and keep picking away at your sanity, at your trust in the reality of the external world. And Ballingrud’s external world is very textured and visceral. The opening of the text lays out a tactile space where the story will unfold:
The 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.
I can’t think of too many better ways to convey a sense of filth. We’ve all been in this bar. The sticky floors our shoes cling to. The every present stench of background cigarettes. The watery slosh of cheap beer. The sense of place is so strong and claustrophobic at times. Similar scenes take place at Will’s apartment with briefly glanced figures in the shadows. The Visible Filth will put you in the shoes of its protagonist: uncomfortable, left without answers, everything a good horror story should be.