Review: “A Natural History of Hell” by Jeffrey Ford

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Cover illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love.

A demon is exorcised from a toe, a recovering addict takes on an ancient magus, an author is exposed to the strange totemic power of words, and a ruthless industrialist reaps what he sows during his foray into an unusual form of engineering.  These are some of the ludicrous and unsettling delights to be found in Jeffrey Ford’s latest collection, A Natural History of Hell from Small Beer Press.

The stories meander among “high” (in short story form) fantasy, magical realism, satire, science fiction, and horror, and Ford takes care to demonstrate that these are not mutually exclusive territories.  While they range far and wide within the general realm of speculative fiction, what shines through as perhaps the strongest unifying element is the author’s interest in received cultural narratives, such as fairy tale and myth, and the ways in which contemporary life (relative to whichever story is in question) interacts with and deforms them.  A laundry list of explicit references and subtle allusions abound throughout the collection, and Ford’s penchant for metafictional devices is deployed to great effect in order to create tension between the present and the past.  “Rocket Ship to Hell”, a piece that could be described as an apparent love letter to living science fiction fandom between the 1950s and the present, does not have a great deal in the way of plot, suspense, or character development.  Nevertheless, it manages to create an overall sense of uncertainty by rendering unclear where the division is between the inner and frame stories, reality and drunken bullshitting between sort-of colleagues.

Virtually every story in A Natural History of Hell has as a lynchpin some kind of received tale in the world of the story, and the events which unfold in the main plot are designed to reveal both the strengths and the fragilities inherent to narrative and identity, subject and object.  As perhaps the clearest illustration of Ford’s experimentation with these ideas, in “Spirits of Salt: A Tale of the Coral Heart,” a first-person scholar recounts a legend that rests upon flimsy-at-times evidence from diaries and other such artifacts, a tale which features a third-person character named “-I-” (short for Ismet, but seemingly done to provoke these questions of narrative authority) and another character of a different age and gender with the same long form of the name.  Humans in many of these short works are fragile, rendered into salt in an instant, while stories endure even if in fragmented form through strange forces of quirks of consciousness, as in “Word Doll.”  The mere title encapsulates a conflict between an inert facsimile of human form and the persistent life of the proper case Word from which human consciousness develops, and the story’s namesake is firmly entrenched in the psyche of those on whom it is bestowed, changing their interior monologues in profound ways.

“Word Doll” concerns “Jeffrey Ford,” a writer, and his encounter with a strange anthropologist who unspools a tale largely concerned with the supposed totemic power of words, but it is left artfully ambiguous whether or not in “reality” the eponymous word doll has its power merely by an inherent quality or if the listener is equally complicit in constructing the power of such utterances.  The uncertainty is made possible largely by the author’s inclusion of himself, specifically as a purveyor of words, from early in the story.  “The Thyme Fiend,” one of the strongest pieces on display, features a young Midwestern boy coming of age while dealing with frightening visions and an unsolved murder.  Ford uses playful but resonant references to a number of works, such as Hansel and Gretel and Gotthelf’s The Black Spider (which we’ve covered here before), all of which enrich the story and add appropriate tension rather than descending into overdone pastiche.  The tension and strangeness of the story is balanced by judiciously placed moments that are all too recognizable to most anyone who has made it through adolescence, and the awkward but necessary milestones of transitioning to adulthood make for a fine anchor amidst the bizarre events that propel the plot (and likewise for several others in the collection).

Ford’s stories do not shy away from their heritages, and they unapologetically make frequent use of witches, magicians, reanimated skeletons, rocket ships, and other signposts of specific genres while acknowledging that they are not entirely that same genre.  Often their function as plot devices is purposely eroded by another crucial element of Ford’s fiction: his careful use of violence. There is a kind of precise cruelty contained in the union of fictitious creatures and specifically modern (relative to fairy tale or other folklore used as reference points and context within Ford’s stories) kinds of violence, such as the calculated efficiencies of industrialization applied to living creatures and gunfire used on strange spirits from an ancient folktale.  In most cases, the violence manages to surprise in an artful and convincing manner.

Mixed in with all the elements under discussion is a fine display of humor that often appears at the most unexpected of moments.  “Blood Drive,” while both hilarious and disturbing, reads as a kind of Wayside School Is Falling Down as composed in a strange fever dream conjured by Wayne LaPierre, and although its satirical barbs are sharp and well-aimed, the story feels a bit out of place among the rest of the works in the collection.  The collection’s opener, “The Blameless,” while a fine story on its own seems a bit too absurd to function as an effective overture, even in a collection filled with absurdities.  It would perhaps have set a better overall tone if it was a bit further back in favor of a story like “The Fairy Enterprise” or “The Last Triangle” (which mashes together an ancient magic with the horrors of modern drug addiction and recovery), both of which strike a balance more representative of what would follow.  “The Thyme Fiend” encapsulates many of the ideas explored throughout and is perhaps the best, most robust example of a story that could function as a centerpiece, but it lurks near the end of the book.  In “Blood Drive,” violence itself is the context, which very much seems to be the point, and it works well as satire with a message while not being quite as memorable in terms of plot as stories like “The Fairy Enterprise” and “Mount Chary Galore”, which deploy violence (at times as intense as incidents in “Blood Drive”) on a longer trajectory of cause and effect.  To be fair, “Blood Drive” is itself a depiction of a culture with a warped sense of context and causal relationships, but its effect doesn’t quite linger as much as most of the other stories.

A few minor caveats aside, “A Natural History of Hell” is an excellent collection of stories originally appearing in diverse outlets, along with a brand new tale original to the book.  By revealing the underlying instabilities of foundational narratives and the strange worlds that they struggle to articulate, Ford breathes plenty of life into the Weird and leaves the reader with a pleasant uncertainty as to what they have just experienced, along with a desire to read it again and see what else emerges next time.  This distinctive effect could only be achieved by a thoughtful and unique voice pushing the boundaries created by work that came before even while paying homage to the same.