17 thoughts on “A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford


    “Tom spotted a guy holding a beer, and went in search of.”

    The unspoken elision is perfect not only in the context but also for a book published by Small Beer, especially when Tom is told later by his wife, as mine often does, to go slow on it.
    Having felt a tinge of Updike, I suggest, from my berth reading this in the UK, that this is a fine satire upon American suburban people who, here, have rites-of-passage exorcism social occasions for their older children as they are shriven of what older children are often cursed with as far as behaviour is concerned, whether it is the devil’s doing or just plain nature. But is it a satire at all or a glimpse of some intrinsic truth demonstrated by its absurdism and stage religiosity and gibberese? I wish I had thought of exorcism parties for my own children all those years back. It may have absolved a lot of trouble.
    The story itself has an often dangerously near the bone hilarity of an exorcism party in this very enjoyable romp involving devilish extrusions from the daughter’s bodily parts, and a word-musically ‘dying fall’ ending to die for.


    “‘My mind is scattered by age,’ she said and smiled.”

    A truly haunting, mythic-crafted discovery-by-fiction of an intrinsic truth that we all should already have known: the word doll. We see this discovery through the eyes of a natural born story-writer who drives his vehicle past various routine places of his route and then we suddenly see the sign through him, a sign for the ‘word doll museum’. We find out from the old woman he meets in connection with that sign that nobody has been interested in it for years; he is the first for ages, and thus so do we become interested by being co-readers of his writing, I guess. The word doll is in fact significantly connected, I feel, with the child exorcism rites of the previous story, a sort of lesson to keep the old children, or children old by being older in or from our past time, working in the fields, the word doll being a sort of counterintuitive distraction doll, a friend that helps them concentrate on the field work, if not sharing the work, even doing it themselves. Well, if I tell you more, it will spoil this story, especially if I tell you more of the old woman and what happens to her. It is a story that I feel I ought to have read before. It will become, perhaps, my own word doll, my fiction friend not field friend, one that may distract me from my own writing block that has lasted into the scattered ageing today of my second-childhood. If so, thanks to Jeff Ford (the explicit name of the story-writing character in the story). A wonderful work.


    “In the village square there were two enormous black cauldrons, simmering mucine and glifero, spices from the Far Islands.”

    This seems to be – and, to my naive eye, actually is – a Biblical apocryphal fable of an Angel, and his two Mastiff sled-helpers, who supplies an inimical protectionist policy towards a village and its inhabitants, creating sometimes impregnated staylings or changelings – and other mischief – for those whom he takes agreed ownership each year that his sway persists. The outcome of blood pits, more blameless extrusions and near mayhem is a fascinating and stirring scattershot of strangely divine influences – and I wondered if the surviving mastiff was the one who ate the mutton hand? Or was that me before writing this review? And can you tell this is another story I have thoroughly enjoyed?
    (Although distinctively discrete, this work, to my naive eye, SEEMS, too, to be in the wonderful weird literary tradition of the Ex Occidente Press canon, very nearly one hundred of whose books I have previously reviewed. And a seeming tinge of Rhys Hughes or vice versa?)

    I read and reviewed this story before here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/fearful-symmetries/#comment-3172
    and my real-time reviews are intended to be first reactions after a first reading of a work, whether it requires a second reading or not to appreciate it fully.
    But I will say I have read it again and enjoyed it more in the context’s flavour so far of this collection. A growing upon me of mastiffs and magic hogs plus my own word doll’s sense of humorror gifted by Ford. When my children were small, their minor hurts always seemed to diminish when I pulled an invisible jar of magic ointment from under the couch for them to use.


    “‘I intend to be in your book,’ he said and prevented himself from smiling.”

    This is a slippery story, with lies, then corrections of lies throughout (e.g. the pony that is corrected more than once into what it is in this fiction’s truth) – a story that is actually perfect in its own way, quite distinct and discrete, but also sharing to my mind a few constructive features of Capote and Evenson…
    It takes place on a Japanese peninsula, evocatively described, the characters evocatively characterised, too, with the professional ‘escort’ lady who also writes books and lies that she never went to university, and the business man, both in hindsight with their own ingenious jigsaw of lies and motives, but who completes the jigsaw first? The outlying place they visit to share their enticing concept of an Autumn’s completion (cf my view of Ford’s Autumn here), and their own adult sex (lie or truth?) as well as attempted forced animal abnormalities… A very disturbing and satisfying work of fiction that I am glad I have had the chance to read and hopelessly now can never forget.


    “By the time the first snow came in late November, the guns became mostly just part of our wardrobes, and kids turned their attention back to their cell phones and iPods.”

    This, like the earlier Exorcism coming-of-age parties, is another modern Swiftain Modest Proposal extrapolation. It is now easier to imagine, from where I am in brexited Britain, the gun laws that seem to apply in real-time America, but this is a shocking fable of children and teachers each openly with their guns, and school children in young labour, giving birth to a dystopia that involves even mildly spoken people having their own foully expletive signatures every time they point their gun at someone, whether in play or in deadly intent.
    I feel this powerful story is pointed at us in BOTH play and deadly intent. Bloodflow in a two-way filter. Literature’s modern Plato’s Cave syndrome.

  7. I read and reviewed this story before here https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/years-best-weird-fiction-volume-one/#comment-3546, and below is a copy and paste of what I then wrote about it:


    A Terror

    “…Me / Undoing knots…”

    I think this may become one of my all time favourite stories. As an extended Brothers Grimm type fable, its words gestate… It is a Faustian bargain that the female poet makes with Death, Death who appears firstly like the White Rabbit in Alice and then takes her on a trip as if with Dorothy in Oz, and there are many disturbing moments, including the effective description of the undead boy for whom she is contracted to poeticise a counterspell to the spell his mother had cast on the boy to keep him living… It just needed three words in one of her poems that she writes inside her own tomb… It is ironic, I guess, that it is also the same spell for her to transcend her own death…
    The most unlikely source for care and love: Death itself.
    By each undoing of each ligottus…?

    Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
    Untouched by Morning –
    and untouched by noon –
    (Emily Dickinson)


    “‘He’s got the prostate. You know what I mean?’ She turned and looked at me.
    ‘Not yet but I’m sure someday I will.'”

    …the rocket ship to Hell, indeed. But that’s not what this engagingly page-turning hilarity of a story is really about. Having a break at a recent SF World Convention, the narrator finds a bar in a grimy area of the city, where he and the bartender (a woman who also happens to be a budding SF writer) meet an old-timer SF writer who tells an apparently true story about his 1950s space trip (sponsored by four rich old men) along with a painter (a ‘naive’ female artist) and a composer (a theremin specialist who ended up playing the rather attractive avant garde universal note sonata!) – the three of them having been employed to tap the experience of space travel to embellish their various arts. I can’t do justice to all of it here, and, indeed, a lot of it is secret, but, meanwhile, part of me wanted, when I got halfway, to dive to the end and start reading upside down from the back to the middle. This work fitted my current mood as I am currently reviewing the 1950s material in the double-columned BIG BOOK OF SCIENCE FICTION…


    “‘Mr. Benett, even a brilliant gentleman such as yourself can never know the way of the fairies. They seem to us crazy as a mad woman’s poo.’
    The industrialist jotted down ‘mad woman’s poo’.

    …as I did, too, from this story’s text, a text that is only a text at all simply for its own sake, one that seethes and crackles with what I have learned already to call forking Fordisms, a text that I sense if I burn its pages it’s printed on upon a book bonfire a brain-igniting spark of its soul (spark of the book or of libban life itself?) would float towards some heavenly hell. TIma Loorie, Binsel, Thrashner, Benett, letters seem loose, too, like poo as an elision for poor? Mr Norrel, notwithstanding.
    It tells of an industrialist’s plans to exploit the population with fairies by some arcane fairy factory recipe of recreating such creatures from the black snowstorms of lore or yore. And the tiny mobile repercussions of his machinations are manifold amidst a crepitating style to die for or, at least, to express one’s own waste products to self-desiccate for.


    “…and I want you to walk all around the town, everywhere you can think of, and look to see if that symbol appears on any other walls.”

    I confirm that when I posted that photo above, I had no idea that this would be a story about another such symbol….
    This is a strangely relentless, almost naively obsessive, almost felt-to-be-incantatory, plot about a triangulation of symbols (comparable, for me, with my long-term attempted explicit dreamcatching triangulations in gestalt real-time reviewing), a triangulation with occult importance, following the befriending of a criminalised down-and-out by a woman, and involving him in such a deadly triangle as sanctuary-and-prison, along with her ex named Lionel Brund…
    Having now read it all, a third of me is impressively haunted by this text, another third constructively bemused, the final third mindlessly shrugging. The proportions may change.


    “‘You don’t look like a crone,’ he told her.
    ‘To each her crone,’ she said.”

    I remember entities earlier in this book being smashed into salt smithereens, and this is a rumbustious tale of Ismet Toler, a foundling found at the edge of a cliff whence his mother, I guess, must have leapt like one of many lemmings, and he is then adopted by a hermit, a female hermit, to boot, she, indeed, a hermit assassin called “- I -” who trains her ward Ismet by pitting herself in warrior disguise against him.
    With much more that feeds like a two-way filter into and from BleakWarrior. Black coral versus red coral.
    Sturgeon featured Mars in that story I mentioned above, transmigrated here as an island of red coral. As RM Ballantyne might have said: every man is that island; every man’s would-be mother, a lethal symbiosis; every man’s would-be enemy, a crock of coralised salt?


    “There was almost too much to tell. Every time he picked a launching point, he thought of some other thread that needed tending…”

    And so with time’s deep breath…
    A substantive work that flows delightfully through the mind with all its forking Fordisms and desiccated salt-visions. Except the threads are not hemp but smoky swirls of inhaled thyme and cups of thyme tea to help assuage the demons. The work is about a 14 year old boy who needs such hits of thyme, and a bike, to broaden his horizons and defend his own sapling defences, and eventually a girl to hold his hand, as he and then both of them are faced with visitations from the retributory toothless dead between its sporadic farming farms in Hell. Spurned by the villagefolk (some guiltier than others, we suspect) for his seeming obsessive peculiarities, the boy persists along justice’s long journey, when he eventually sees, we hope, the light at the end of his erstwhile life’s dark tunnel. But whither or whence, such light? We all have that question to answer, triangulated, as we ever shall be, by Hell, Heaven and Hiraeth. Or so, sometimes with vivid frights, this major threaded yarn portends.


    “I’m not in the habit of showing my true self to the Lord’s clay dolls, but I will for a price.”

    …as if this coda of the whole book is proof positive of the existence of a talejuice’s word dolls, here in a Christian religious sense, after Codilan, this coda’s master artist, creates an image of angry God in the Cathedral’s dome with Hell beneath, a God who is later doll-masked – by the very Devil – with the face of the prelate who commissioned from Talejui (Codilan’s under artist) a portrait of that Devil himself so as the masses would recognise the Devil when he came to them – or possessed their children? A tortuous vision that somehow works on various levels, especially when also taken into account with the concept of the crucially triangulated murder at the centre of this book’s earlier story. I am still working on this final story in my mind, its “motes of marble dust floating in the sunlight”, the “nettlemare” smoked in a long pipe, “time for his creation being scattered like dust”, the chandeliers turned to “crude salt”. And of the Hermetic and “frosty blue”, and more. It is, at one level, of the Ex Occidente canon and, at other levels, of something specially Fordian, levels still being fathomed. Always ask the next question.

    The whole book still needs to be worked at, too. So pleased I picked it up.


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