Looking back through history, some of mankind’s most intriguing pseudosciences are those that draw connections between appearance and value. Judging the human book by its cover, phrenology and physiognomy purport to be able to measure morals through the dimensions and attributes of body. Somehow maintaining plausibility for centuries, it wasn’t truly until the turn of the 20th that the practices were quelled from the public eye. But what a tool of power it would have been. A malleable concept if ever there were, a king or high-minded official might condemn a person based solely on the dimensions of a nose—even if their own physical characteristics fit that of a murderer or rapist. Taking the idea and putting it to use in fiction, Jeffrey Ford’s 1997 The Physiognomy (re-released by Open Road Media in 2015) is the redemption of one such high-minded official. His story defining the word ‘malleable,’ it’s about as swimmingly macabre as dark fantasy gets.
Cley is a physiognomist living in the Well-Built City. A despicable, bilious, narcissistic criminal of an official, he is the right-hand man of the city’s even more despicable ruler, the sorcerous Drachton Below. Falling out of favor at the outset, however, Cley is sent on a punitive assignment to a small mining town in the distant, dirty reaches of the realm to weed out the thief of a strange white fruit. With miners petrifying in the blue dust they collect each day, demons in the nearby forest, a beautiful young woman with greater physiognomy talent than he, and a strange thing calling itself the Traveler haunting his dreams (or his reality), Cley’s time in the town of Anamasobia spins his already bizarre world to the surreal. Catching the thief is only a doorway to stranger things.
Gothic grotesque spun Weird, The Physiognomy is a text that draws on such writers as Fritz Leiber, Mervyn Peake, William Hope Hodgson, and Clark Ashton Smith to tell its own, never-before-heard tale. Ford perpetually upending user expectation, zagging one step ahead of zigging, he takes the reader into the mind of an anti-hero and the surreal machinations of a Victorian-esque-esque setting, arriving somewhere... beyond.
The Physiognomy a combination of bizarre story and hallucinatory experience, Ford’s vibrant, incisive prose holds no punches. A Halloween mood with Victoriana undertones, malevolence and catacomb hijinks, aristocratic frills and corruption are rendered in such vivid colors as to pleasingly discomfort. There is a danger, a dark humor, and an inexplicably visceral edge that cut to the heart of something in the story that makes the reader squirm yet want more of it:
He leaned over and touched her behind the head, turning her on. She opened her eyes and sat up. “Sing,” he said to her, and she began to grunt pitifully. The other agents laughed. “Now go home and don’t speak a word of this to anyone,” he said. As I hurried toward the door of the chamber, I looked back and saw the men gathered around her, removing their black coats. The dog, free of its leash, was madly running in circles.
Possessing elements of steampunk, as well as horror and fairy-tale fantasy, the novel can only be defined as the dark side of Weird.
Jeffrey Ford is a writer, I feel, connoisseurs of fantasy are aware of but who is a big blind spot for the majority of genre readers. This is unfortunate. Starting with the strength of his debut novel The Physiognomist, Ford has become one of the most polished and original voices in the field, and would likely appeal to a much wider audience. Fans of Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman, James Blaylock, Fritz Leiber, and others would be sure to enjoy his rich and varied imagination. The Physiognomy Ford’s first, there’s no reason why it can’t also be the reader’s.