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Friday, August 5, 2016

Story Collection by Jeffrey Ford: "A Natural History of Hell"

Author:  Jeffrey Ford 
Series:  A Natural History of Hell 
Plot Type:  A mix of folklore, science fiction, and psychological horror
Ratings:  Violence2-4; Sensuality1-3; Humor—2-3 
Publisher and Titles:  Small Beer Press (7/2016)


     The best summarization of this collection is from Booklist: "Although the stories are not linked, they do share a common theme: wickedness lurking just beneath the surface of everyday life. And while each uses different degrees of the supernatural to get there, all employ a dark and uneasy atmosphere, quirky characters, and thought-provoking endings, with delightfully unsettling results." Many of the stories begin with relatively normal events, but then take a turn into horror. In a number of them, magical spells and/or weapons turn people into scattered piles of salt. Death makes a personal appearance, as do angels and witches. It is an eclectic and entertaining collection tied together by the common theme of supernatural evil. My favorites are the sinuous "A Natural History of Horror," the chilling "Blood Drive," the twisty-plotted "Spirits of Salt," and the fervent "The Thyme Fiend."

Twelve of the stories have previously appeared either in print or on-line. The first tale, "The Blameless," is published here for the first time. Click HERE to read or listen to "Creation," an additional on-line story by Jeffrey Ford on the Fantasy Magazine web site.


Emily Dickinson takes a carriage ride with Death. A couple are invited over to a neighbor's daughter's exorcism. A country witch with a sea-captain's head in a glass globe intercedes on behalf of abused and abandoned children. In July of 1915, in Hardin County, Ohio, a boy sees ghosts. Explore contemporary natural history in a baker's dozen of exhilarating visions. 


Jeffrey Ford was born on Long Island in New York State in 1955 and grew up in the town of West Islip. He studied fiction writing with John Gardner at S.U.N.Y. Binghamton. He's been a college English teacher of writing and literature for thirty years. He is the author of eight novels including The Girl in the Glass and four short story collections. He has received the World Fantasy, Nebula, Edgar, and Shirley Jackson awards. He lives with his wife Lynn in a century-old farm house in a land of slow clouds and endless fields.

                         THE STORIES                         
"The Blameless" 
The exorcist at workQuotation: "His wrist twitched once, and he withdrew two more writhing blobs. Their colors were brilliant. The red one growled and the green wore a jellified smile."

Summary and Comment: In this suburban world, exorcisms of teenage children are as popular as bar/bat mitzvahs, first communions, and Quinceañeras. Even NPR extolls their virtues. When Tom and Helen receive an exorcism invitation for their neighbors' daughter, they decide to attend, primarily for the sandwiches and beer, but also, to see what this exorcism business is all about. Ultimately, they get more than they bargained for. In this disturbing tale, Ford sardonically lampoons extravagant coming-of-age parties and the overreaction of adults to classic teen behavior.

"Word Doll" 

Setting the sceneQuotation: "Every morning I take the back way to town, a fifteen-mile drive on narrow two-lane roads that cut through oceans of corn. The cracked and patched asphalt is lined on either side by telephone poles shrinking into the distance."

Summary and Comment: A man named Jeff Ford discovers the Doll Word Museum in a ramshackle barn near his rural home. The owner is a "thin old woman, a little bent, with a cloud of white hair and big glasses" who wears a loose-fitting yellow-flowered dress and walks with a three-pronged cane. She tells him the story of how 19th century farmers used a strange ritual to train their children to work through the long, hot days of the harvest. Their method works for awhile, but then something goes horribly wrong with a boy named Evron. It's a weirdly entertaining story, but the best part is Ford's exquisite touch as he describes old-fashioned feel of the sunny, peaceful farm, with the strong scent of blooming lilacs, "and a wind chime in the corner over an old rocker [pinging] in the breeze sifting through the screen." Little snippets like these are scattered throughout the story, creating a strong sense of place. One botanical nitpick: The story is set in the farm fields of Ohio 
in late September, but lilacs in the Midwest bloom only in the spring.

"The Angel Seems" 

The titular characterQuotation: "In late autumn, after the harvest had been brought in and the first real snow had fallen, he came from the forest on a stagbone sled drawn by enormous twin mastiffs. He was slight and trim, with white hair and beard, and he wore a snug black suit with slits in the back of the jacket for his wings to fit through."

Summary and Comment: The man's name is Alfrod Seems, and he claims to be an angel. At first, the villagers in this isolated medieval town are thrilled to have an angel to protect them. But
as that old cliché statesbe careful what you wish for. Angel Seems is definitely not what he seems, and neither are those two mastiffs. This is a folkloric horror tale with a terrific twist or two at the endcreepy, but compelling.

"Mount Chary Galore" 

Introducing the WitchQuotation: "Mrs. Oftshaw was best known for a liniment of her own concoction, Mount Chary Galore, that had no other curative property than to make you feel generally right and was suspected of being some part of the black lace mushrooms she gathered by the light of an orange moon. She was a strange, solitary old bat, who'd been around so long she was part of the landscape."

Summary and Comment: Ford begins with a witch and her cigar-smoking hog and then adds in a broken, blended family and a take-off on Hansel and Gretal's woodsy journey (during which 
all of the participants appear to have imbibing the mushrooms referenced in the opening quotation). This is a surrealistic fairy tale that left me muttering,"WTF just happened here?"

"A Natural History of Autumn" 

The main characters and the settingQuotation: "On a blue afternoon in autumn, Riku and Michi drove south from Numazu in his silver convertible along the coast of the Izu Peninsula...She wore sunglasses and to protect her hair, a yellow scarf with a design of orange butterflies. He wore driving gloves, a black dress shirt, a loosened white tie."

Summary and Comment: So...we move from an ancient angel and a medieval witch to a mysterious and terrifying adventure in modern Japan. This is a perfect little story that has it all: attractive, charismatic lead characters; a spooky isolated house; a strange old woman and her huge, hostile dog; and some final twists and turns that will leave you gasping. The story of Riku and Michi juxtaposes love and betrayal, bravery and cowardice, reality and mysticism, and life and death. Ford has polished this gem of a tale to a fine luster. To understand the context, though, you need to know some basic details related to Japanese culture:

  > A hostess club is a bar with primarily female staff that caters to males in search of drinks and attentive conversation
  > A dohan is a date with a hostess away from the club
  > An onsen is a hot spring

"Blood Drive" 
The heroine's father praises Far-Right-Wing Senator MeetsQuotation: "This guy's got it down...Meets passed the gun laws, mandatory church on Sunday for all citizens, killed abortion, and got us to stand up to the Mexicans...He's definitely gonna be the next president."

Summary and Comment: This story is set in a chilling version of America in which everyone carries a gun (beginning with senior year in high school) and the child labor laws are about to be canceled so that children twelve or older would "now be eligible to be sent to work by their parents for extra income." During lunch hour, the teenagers practice spinning their guns, and the vice principal holds quick-draw contests. 
The heroine, who carries her pearl-handled Smith & Wesson revolver in a Sponge Bob lunchbox, narrates in her deadpan first person voice to great humorous effect, but the reality of the characters' lives is so dreadful that it gets harder and harder to laugh. With so many guns, it's hardly surprising that the story culminates in a massive classroom shootout (which reminded me of the final scene in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir DogsWarning...lots of F-bombs in that movie scene). Ford has concocted a story that alternately causes waves of dread and ripples of laughter in the reader. The highlight, for me, is Ford's metaphorical use of Plato's Allegory of the Cave to illustrate the shadow reality of this awful world. Unfortunately, it's all a bit too real, given the current political climate. Is this our future? I certainly hope not.

"A Terror" 

Dialogue between Emily Dickinson and DeathQuotation: "She called out louder than she intended, 'Who are you?' The gentleman stepped up out of the street and onto the sidewalk. 'I'm nobody, who are you?' he said and laughed." (Click HERE to read the poem that Death references.)

Summary and Comment: 
Even though Emily Dickinson "could not stop for Death," he kindly stops for Emily one night as she is recovering from one of her "spells" (probably an epileptic seizure) and gives her the ride of her life in his handsome carriage. Then, he asks her to help him free a dead boy from the spell his mother is using to keep him "alive." The story begins as a nighttime mystery, ventures into horror, and then ends in a surreal, poetic dialogue. In the beginning and ending scenes, Death is quite entertaining as he deftly inserts lines from Emily's own poems into their prosaic conversations. At one point when Emily is running for her life, Death calls out, "Lap the miles, Miss Dickson. Lick the valleys up." Although this one is definitely one of the most interesting of the stories, it isn't one of my favorites because the ghastly, disgusting horror segment is so out of sync with the rest of the story. But maybe that's the point. This story is (obviously) based on Emily Dickinson's poem, "Because I Could Not Stop for Death..." 

"Rocket Ship to Hell" 

Let the story-telling beginQuotation: "I could tell by this guy's shtick that if I went for his story, I could be there for an eternity. At the same time, the way he stared at me waiting for an answer, eyes big behind those thick lenses, it was almost as if he was offering a challenge, writer to writer—Are you going to go back and walk the empty corridors or are you going to stay right here where the story is?"

Summary and Comment: This is a "man walks into a bar" story in which the "man" is an author taking a break from a Comic Con in Philadelphia. When another author wanders into the nearly empty bar, he has a tall tale to tell to the first man and to the young female bartender—a tale of space travel, secret government agents, and a banned book. It's basically an homage to the sci fi magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, like Galaxy, Amazing Stories, If, Venture, and F&SF.

"The Fairy Enterprise" 

Opening SentenceQuotation: "Once upon a time, prior to the mastication of mill gears, the clang and hellfire of factories, before smog and black snow, fairies grew up naturally from out of the earth, out of the bodies of the dead, and found life again in one of the four elements."

Summary and Comment: Set during the era of the robber barons, this is the story of the rise and fall of wealthy industrialist Mr. Hollis Lackland Benett, "a man of a peculiar nature and vast capital." Always eager to capitalize on a trend, Mr. Benett comes up with a scheme to provide fairies to the rich and famous, with disastrous personal results. Although this is not a violent tale, there are several disturbing events, not the least of which is Mr. Benett's ultimate fate. It's a neat skewering of the greed and heartlessness of big corporations then and now. There is also an oblique reference to the premise of the classic sit com, Seinfeld—a show that is, famously, about nothing—when a fellow industrialist congratulates Benett on his canny scam, which has "the appearance of industry and yet the manufacture of nothing."

"The Last Triangle" 

The lead charactersQuotation: "We must have been a sight on the street. Ms. Berkley, marching along in her puffy ski parka and wool hat, blue with gold stars and a tassel. I don't think she was even five foot. I walked a couple of steps behind her. I'm 6-4, I hadn't shaved or had a haircut in a long while, and I was wearing this brown suit jacket that she'd found in her closet. I couldn't button it if you had a gun to my head, and my arms stuck out the sleeves almost to the elbow. She told me, 'It belonged to the dead man.'"

Summary and Comment: A retired history professor rescues a substance abuser from his hard-knock life after he seeks refuge in her garage. Then she talks him into helping her solve a mystery involving a magical triangle, a mystery that first reaches into the professor's past and ultimately determines her future. The young addict's first-person voice is grim and true as he fights through his horrific withdrawal, smokes some weed to take the edge off, and works hard to become what the professor believes he can be. It's a mash-up of urban fantasy and a 
cozy mystery, as if a human, weed-smoking Nick Gautier (from Sherrilyn Kenyon's CHRONICLES OF NICK) teamed up with Jessica Fletcher (from Murder She Wrote TV series). A nice little story with well-developed lead characters and a fast-paced plot.

"Spirits of Salt: A Tale of the Coral Heart" 

Toler is in big troubleQuotation: "He didn't trust anything. A sword that turns opponents to coral, a red coral man with a crystal sword that turns opponents to salt, and a witch in a cottage in the middle of a blizzard. 'Wake up,' he whispered to himself..."

Summary and Comment: 
In this fairy tale (or myth or legend), a retired assassin (who might be a witch) raises an orphaned boy in an isolated mountain cave and sends him out into the world. The plot twists and turns, doubling back on itself at its surreal ending. Once again, Ford brings his exotic characters to life in exquisitely constructed settings. This is one of my favorites. The "punniest" line comes in this exchange: 

     "I'm the crone of Aer...."
     You don't look like a crone," he told her.
     "To each her crone," she said.

"The Thyme Fiend" 

Ford might be describing the August weather in my Ohio town as I'm writing this reviewQuotation: "In July of 1915, in Hardin County, Ohio, the normally reliable breeze of the plains...without warning up and died. The relentless blue skies and humidity were merciless; the dream-white clouds, palatial and unmoving. Over ninety degrees every hint of rain...Farm folk sweated and burned at their labor, and at night took to either the Bible or the bottle or both."

Summary and Comment: This begins as a young boy's bike-riding adventure that twists into a ghost story and finally turns into a murder mystery. The pace is fast; the plot is compelling; the titular character is heartbreakingly real; and the ending is quite satisfying. This is Our Town with a real skeleton from hell along with some metaphorical skeletons in the closets of its citizens—all in league against the demon-chased, thyme-addicted protagonist. In a literary reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne, the town pastor has begun wearing a black veil, just like Reverend Hooper in Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil," another story about secret sins.

One questionable detail: The Pastor's wife drives a white Studebaker. First: The basic car for most people at that time was the Model T Ford (about $400). A Studebaker would have cost more than twice that much (about $1000). Second: Most automobiles in those days were black. I'm pretty sure that the Pastor wasn't making enough money to afford a plain black Studebaker, much less a special paint job on such an expensive automobile. 

"The Prelate's Commission" 

Here's the deal, says the Prelate to the artistQuotation: "I want you to go forth into the world, find the devil, and paint his portrait."

Summary and Comment: Just as in all stories featuring the devil, you can be sure that the demonic trickster offers the artist a deal that tips heavily in his own favor. The hapless artist has a grand adventure, but just as he thinks he got the best of Satan, he learns a hard lesson, as does the Prelate. The best part of the story is the artist's cross-country journey on board his donkey, Hermes, but then plot bogs down a bit at the end.

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