Friday, August 5, 2016

Review of Crackpot Palace by Jeffrey Ford

Most writers choose to use the introductions to their novels and collections in fairly predictable fashion; either a reminiscence of the times the book was published, or an explanation of the mindset at work. Jeffrey Ford runs the other way at the outset of his 2012 collection Crackpot Palace: Stories. A delightfully lateral piece of quasi-fiction, it hints at mindset while describing, in far from certain terms, the strange well from which the unique, diverse, and very well-written stories that follow were drawn.

But there is no way the stories are entirely cracked. “The Dream of Reason” is set in an uncanny place, but rings truer than true in it’s identification of the human desire for knowledge. One of my personal favorites in Ford’s entire oeuvre, it tells of an arcane scientist hypothesizing upon the reality of light. When a grand invention to test his ideas proves infeasible, he strikes out in a new direction, one that leads him to knowledge he never dreamed but at the expense of something priceless. Combining the reality of reality, a strong voice, and an engaging premise, it is one of Ford’s most philosophical pieces. Written for the VanderMeers’ anthology Odd?, “Weiroot” is indeed entirely odd on the surface, and would seem to fit Ford’s introduction. But beneath is a touching bit of parenthood, as abstract as it may be. A mythological beast brought into creation, it offers tangentially profound insight into raising children. A riff on the Salvador Dali painting of the same name, “Daddy Long Legs of the Evening” is a piece of light-hearted albeit surreal horror. About a boy who has a spider burrow into his brain as an infant, he develops into a spider man (that requires no copyright releases). Kafka’s Metamorphosis after a dose of lysergic diethylamide…

Getting into the corridors and interstices between dreams, ideas, and reality, “The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper” concatenates its ideas into a cohesive whole that, despite its brevity, says a lot about the human conscious and the movement of imagery between its layers. (That the story notes contain an additional short piece of fiction is just the icing on the cake.) Part pastiche/part tribute, “After Moreau” purports to provide the real story of Moreau’s animal-humans from the H.G. Wells classic, as well as what happened after humans left the island. Too modest, Ford calls “Ganesha” a bit of Indian cultural appropriation. What it truly is, is a beautifully ethereal spot of storytelling involving the Hindu god. That the main character is a cigarette-smoking teen only grounds the tale in its examination of the creative act. If there is a person somewhere who minds Ford “borrowing” Ganesha for the tale (most likely an angry SJW…), I suggest they have their sanity checked. Great story. Hearkening back to the Golden Age, “Daltharee” is the story of a city in a bottle, but most particularly the scientist who made it possible. Like something straight from Wonder Stories, it is a short piece written in Ford’s lucid hand. A YA vampire story, “Sit the Dead” attempts to breathe life into one of, if not the most commonly used fantasy tropes. Partially successful, Ford bends certain facets to his own imagination, but at heart, the idea remains. Loved the Gypsy-ish uncle.

A popular contributor, three stories in Crackpot Palace were originally published in editor Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse series of speculative fiction anthologies. One steampunk/science fiction-ish, another mythypoeic fantasy, and the third meta/fiction, they could not be more different in style and content. “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” is more a history and less a story of the great Robot General of the Harvang wars. Dreaded in battle and a celebrity in peace time, Ford comments on the Iraq war while spinning out this mini robot biography. “The Coral Heart” is the tale of the hero Toler and his eponymous sword. Turning men to coral when their blood touches its heart stone, the sword meets its match when Toler encounters a beautiful queen in an ancient city. Conventional sword and sorcery with mythic dimension, the story possesses all of Ford’s descriptive powers. (Though seeming conventional the first time I read this story four years ago, it has stuck in my mind since, the imagery lingering most.) “The Double of My Double Is Not My Double” is (surprise-surprise) the story of a man who has a double who also has a double, and how the first double wants to kill the second double. Not as head-twisting as that sentence seems, the story is a straight-forward affair about how a writer’s head space gets clouded the longer they spend trying to imagine the details of a particular story, and perhaps more importantly, the roots to reality they need to keep themselves sane in the process.

A gorgeous bit of storytelling, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is the lights and stars of a 20’s jazz club in the desert with a touch of noir. Proving the power of mood in fiction, this tale perfectly captures the essence of action and romance without being either of those things. Midnight madness, “Glass Eels” tells of two friends who head out to catch the motherload of the titular fish in the hope of making a grand selling them at market. Their excursion meets more than water and eels… The story nothing special to me, those who enjoy straight-forward crime fiction may get more out of it. Retro sf, “The Hag’s Peak Affair” is more Wonder Stories-type material. A secret underground installation after nuclear fallout proves the perfect recipe for green monsters... Contemporary Americana (i.e. the opposite of a Norman Rockwell painting), “Every Richie There Is” portrays a snapshot of poor, suburban life, and the very human reaction to it. Not a pity piece, Ford presents a Richie, in all his anti-glory, and allows only the next degree of social class to ruminate upon it. Surprisingly touching. Feeling like an Elizabeth Hand story, “Down Atsion Road” tells of an eccentric old folk artist living in the quiet backroads of New Jersey, the odd, unnatural connection he seems to have with the area’s Native American history, and the birth of an urban legend following upon.

Ford’s contribution to the The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities anthology, “Relic” by Jeffrey Ford is the story of the head priest at the Church of Saint Ifritia, a weather-beaten place of worship at the end of the world, and the one-of-a-kind sacrament he guards. Ford normally a strong, focused writer, the prose wavers a touch, but cannot prevent this multi-faceted story—partially about stories and partially about a severed foot—from being very solid. The previously unpublished “The Wish Head” provides a yang to the yin of “Relic.” Feeling also an Elizabeth Hand offering (the two writers are friends), it tells of a detective in the ‘30s who finds a most puzzling corpse in a river. Seeming to smile in death, the body likewise bears no signs of trauma. Having a phantom pain in his amputated foot, the detective will need all of strength as well as intelligence to find the killer. This type of story has been done to death, but Ford breathes life into it through style alone, the ending far-less typical.

In the end, Crackpot Palace is another superb collection of short stories from one of the tip-top best fantasy writers working today. The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories, The Empire of Ice Cream: Stories, and The Drowned Life great collections in their own right, Crackpot Palace only perpetuates the consistency of Ford’s imagination and storytelling prowess at short length. Once again covering a huge variety of stories and imagery, Ford proves that convention has its limits, and pushing beyond, its rewards. Though some of my personal favorites are “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “The Coral Heart,” “The Dream of Reason,” and “The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper,” the reader will certainly find their own stories to appreciate.

Published between 1993 and 2011, the following are the twenty stories collected in Crackpot Palace:

Introduction (by Jeffrey Ford)
Polka Dots and Moonbeams
Down Atsion Road
Sit the Dead
The Seventh Expression of the Robot General
86 Deathdick Road
After Moreau
The Hag's Peak Affair
The Coral Heart
The Double of My Double Is Not My Double
Every Richie There Is
The Dream of Reason
The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper
Glass Eels
The Wish Head
Dr. Lash Remembers
Daddy Long Legs of the Evening

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to reread these stories, it has been a long time since I read them when the collection was published. "The Coral Heart" is one of my favorites, too, and has stayed with me. Now, I am eagerly -- or rather, impatiently -- waiting for A Natural History of Hell, which should have been here two weeks ago and still hasn't arrived. One of my favorite authors and one of the best short story writers.