Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford

What are you checking out this review for? Go read Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell (2016, Small Beer). Each of Ford’s collections to date has been a unique mix of all things fantastical, written in the most dynamic yet readable prose, and told in the voice of a man born to write, so what made you think his latest collection would be any different? Did you need a review just to make sure? Consider it confirmed…

But in all seriousness, A Natural History of Hell is yet another great collection of stories from Ford. In fact, the reader must nitpick in order to determine which of his collections—now five and counting—is the “best”, such is the consistency. It’s therefore ironic that Natural History is a very typical collection. The odd bits of autobiography and reminiscence, the real-world realities taking left turns, and the Weird, the fantastical, and the Weirdly fantastical—all continue to exist. But given the author seems to balk at familiar modes and tropes—flee, in fact—it all feels fresh and distinctive. Just another Ford collection...

Ford seeming to become more cynical the older he gets, A Natural History of Hell opens with the only previously unpublished story in the collection. The regressive state of American cultural square in the cross-hairs, "The Blameless" looks at the revival of religion, and the 21st century kookiness that goes in hand. Told from the perspective of normal, cucumber-salad making people, a married couple are invited to attend the exorcism of a neighbor's daughter afflicted by the demons of: kissing, smoking, and wearing alluring clothes. Not the greatest Ford story ever, but certainly one of his laugh-out-loud offerings. “Blood Drive” is another story critical of the American scene, though more openly satirical. Looking at weapons in society, the setting is a high school where the seniors are required to bring guns to school—the ensuing “hilarity” bringing to light the absurdity of arming all Americans.

A lot of Ford’s fiction working with history, well to lesser known, a couple of the stories in Natural History are no exception. Borrowing a page from Tim Powers’ m.o., “A Terror” presents a secret history. A fantastical explanation for a queer remark made by Emily Dickinson in a letter to a friend, she was bothered by something described as “a terror”. Ford posits the young poetess waking up in the middle of the night to find time standing still and her family missing. Wandering into the streets, she meets her “terror”, but in a fashion anything but ghosts and goblins. (A side note: this story forms a nice companion piece to Paul Di Filippo’s “Walt and Emily”.) Working with obscure myth and legend, "Word Doll" is a story presenting the power of ritual on the human mind, as well as how myth and legend evolve. When a man stops by a farmhouse museum in rural Ohio, he is treated to a bit of history from the region. While the first pages of the story read largely like a lesson, Ford steadily and convincingly weaves the past and present together, culminating in a subtle coup de grace in the final paragraph.

Ford’s first few novels fully exemplary of Weird fiction (I’m thinking of The Well-Built City trilogy), preference for the story type is only more evident in his short fiction. No better description for it than Weird fairy tale, "The Angel Seems" describes a surreal scene in a familiar mode. A less-than-typical angel descends on a small town offering protection, the caveat they give one of their own each year to assist him at his lair. A deal with the devil as only Ford can describe, the story moves in directions nobody could predict—the pickled hand just great.

Longest piece in the collection, in “The Thyme Fiend” Ford takes more time than usual developing the setting. It’s early 20th century Ohio where we meet young Emmet. A farmer’s son, he’s out exploring a nearby abandoned farm when he discovers a corpse. Playing havoc with Emmet’s condition (he must consume thyme before sleep or have nightmares), he starts having strange visions of the corpse all the while local law enforcement investigate the cause of death. Dreams and reality clashing ever harder, Emmet’s sense of existence comes into question as the corpse exposes skeletons in the rural region’s closet.

Out of options to group stories in Natural History, I’m left with perhaps the only way to properly describe Ford’s short fiction: miscellany. A mafia thriller infused with Japanese myth the only way to describe it, “A Natural History of Autumn” tells of a man and a woman visiting a remote spa in the mountains of Japan, and the demons and betrayal they encounter there. (Cultural appropriation be damned, it is a ripping yarn rendered unique precisely for the infusion of non-western ideas.) Homage to pulp sf, "Rocket Ship to Hell" bases itself in reality, but soon enough becomes a tall tale that sees a down-on-his-luck writer recalling “glory days”. Dickens gone fantastical, "The Fairy Enterprise" takes us back to the industrial age, a time when fairies were dwindling due to the increased amount of coal and steel. Hollis Bennet, a ruthless industrialist, has plans for a new factory, but he keeps seeing strange things, things like fairies ice skating on the frosty windows of his carriage. A very satisfying story capped off by a superb final sentence, it highlights Ford’s innate storytelling abilities.

Continuing with the miscellany, "The Last Triangle" tells of a drug addict taken in by an elderly lady. Her help not free, she enlists the bedraggled young man in a quest to expose an ancient spell and the magician behind it. Not the most organic story, but entertaining nonetheless. One of few Ford stories that returns to a prior setting, “Spirits of Salt: A Tale of the Coral Heart ” is a spin-off from “The Coral Heart”. Revisiting the hero Toler and his sword with a coral heart, this time around we dig into the swordsman’s backstory. Wu xi style were it not for the fantastical, dream-like, Medieval setting, the story lacks the mythopoeia of the original, but fills the gap with classic sword & sorcery sentiment. Closing out the collection is “The Prelate’s Commission”, being more precisely: “I want you to go forth into the world, find the devil, and paint his portrait.” Where the painter finds the devil is only the beginning, a deal required before any paint touches the canvas.

Evidence of the fertility of imagination, Jeffrey Ford now has almost as many collections as novels (5:7). And it’s difficult to say which is better, preference seemingly the only real arbiter. As such, A Natural History of Hell provides the same varied and satisfying experience as the other collections, not to mention no story can be described common or familiar, and it goes without saying each is written in the same deceivingly simple style that says a lot with a little. Where a certain maturation process is visible in most writers’ oeuvre, it seems Ford was just born to write. So why are you still reading this review?

The following are the thirteen stories collected in A Natural History of Hell:

The Blameless
Word Doll
The Angel Seems
Mount Chary Galore
A Natural History of Autumn
Blood Drive
A Terror
Rocket Ship to Hell
The Fairy Enterprise
The Last Triangle
Spirits of Salt: A Tale of the Coral Heart
The Thyme Fiend
The Prelate's Commission


  1. My favorite book published this year. I'd say it is his finest, his best collection, but as you mention that would denigrate his other superb collections. I preferred it to Michael Swanwick's new collection, which was also great nevertheless.
    Here's hoping Ford will write and publish a new novel as well.

    Great review that does each story justice. As always ...


    1. Memory is playing more tricks on me the older I get, but I seem to recall Ford mentioning in the following podcast (discussing A Natural History of Hell) that he is working on a new novel:

      I would be curious whether it's a spinoff of a short story, or original material...