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What We’re Reading: A Natural History of Hell

2016 August 18
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by Josh Johnson

What We're Reading

9781618731180_bigA Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford (Small Beer Press, July 2016)

Jeffrey Ford is an author I’ve loved for some time. I read Crackpot Palace a few years ago and then immediately reread it. He was doing stuff in that collection I hadn’t seen before; his work was hard to categorize, hugely imaginative, and full of heart. And in A Natural History of Hell, Ford has continued to do all of that and more. Here we have Emily Dickinson enjoying Death’s company for a bit, a town at once protected and beset by a malicious, dangerous angel, an early 20th century Ohioan ghost story, and more. Ford’s new collection runs the gamut of genre and careens past the edges. (And it’s got a killer cover by Jeffrey Alan Love–look at that thing!)

A Natural History of Hell is a chimera: his stories combine surrealist (il)logic with both terrifying and familiar characters and situations. The stories braid together fantasy and history, the near-biography with the almost-mystery, and the result is surprising and enchanting and wonderful. Ford shows in this collection that perhaps his greatest gift is his fitness; he moves between different kinds of stories (the mythic and creepy “A Natural History of Autumn,” the down-home, small-town “Word Doll”) with such ease and mastery. It’s more than a little freaky.

The hope of a collection of mostly-already-published work is to create a conversation between the pieces that didn’t exist before, to offer new contexts for familiar texts. I’m not sure that’s totally achieved with Ford’s new collection, though the experience of reading each of these stories is certainly not diminished. And while the collection may be light on intertextuality, but it does showcase Ford as a writer capable of anything.

The lead-off story in the collection, “The Blameless,” is the only one not previously published, and it sets the tone of the collection, smashing together crazy imagination with wry character moments. The story supposes exorcisms have become as popular and commonplace as birthday parties, with certain exorcisms affording community members a chance to join together and celebrate, like a high school graduation party. Just, you know, demonier. The story swings between great reverence and great comedy as we follow around two people observing this exorcism, commenting on it and the other people present. Take this passage, which begins with the subject of the exorcism’s father reading out her sins and then jumps back to Tom, one of our attendees.

“Our daughter, Grace, has lost her way, fallen into temptation under the influence of evil. Here are the sins we are conscious of. 1) Pleasuring herself 2) Partaking of the pernicious weed 3) Drinking alcohol 4) Consorting with atheists 5) She is ten pounds overweight 6) Painting her face and wearing suggestive clothing.” When he finished he assumed a solemn air, folded the paper twice and returned it to his pocket.

“With the exception of the last one,” Tom whispered, “that like a normal day for me.”

This is Ford at his best: imaginative, funny, light and yet somehow also dead on. The whole collection is filled with moments like this, and it leads to great, memorable stories.

One of the real gems of this collection (and there are many—A Natural History of Hell has no bad stories) is “Blood Drive,” which imagines a world in which high schoolers are encouraged (nearly required) to bring guns to school. This is a setting in which lauded senators are fighting to abolish child labor laws and teachers carry shotguns in class. Everyone has their go-to saying whenever they draw a gun (“When you meet the Devil, give him my regards,”), and there’s a strange boy everyone calls The King of Vermont, who carries around a big glass jar filled with mist (or, depending on who you believe, souls). It’s a wild, weird, inventive landscape filled with fascinating characters, and Ford tells what is perhaps a too-real story within those bounds. Looking around today, we see violence insisted upon in so many terrible ways. Ford’s story asks us to consider a place where deadly violence (always near at hand) is celebrated, but the leap to imagine such a place is sadly small, and this is what makes “Blood Drive” so powerful. Ford grabs the low-hanging fruit of the story (of course there ends up being a shootout at the school; of course lots of people—kids—die) but pushes past it, instead deftly managing to discover a love story nestled into the heart of this too-real violence. It’s powerful even if the narrative is at times chaotic.

What stories of relevance and power have you been reading recently?

What We’re Reading: You Have Never Been Here

2016 January 21
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What We're Reading
You Have Never Been HereYou Have Never Been Here by Mary Rickert (Small Beer Press, 2015)

You Have Never Been Here is stupid good. There’s no other way to say it. This collection of short stories is at once uniform and eclectic; the stories share threads—both thematic and aesthetic—that bind them together, but each story is clearly and uniquely its own thing. The book opens with the story of a woman slowly turning into a deer, a story that begs to be metaphorized but actually thrives better without the clunkiness of questions like “But what does her turning into a deer represent?” And this is true for many of the stories in Rickert’s collection: fantasy tales that at once ask the audience to find truth in them and at the same time question the nature of that truth. Reading this stories is an experience, and it’s one everyone should have. And buoying up each story is Rickert’s unbeatable prose. This, from “Journey into the Kingdom:”

I live simply and virginally, never taking breath through a kiss. This is the vow I made, and I have kept it. Yes, some days I am weakened, and tempted to restore my vigor with such an easy solution, but instead I hold the empty cups to my face, I breathe in, I breathe everything, the breath of old men, breath of young, sweet breath, sour breath, breath of lipstick, breath of smoke. It is not, really, a way to live, but this is not, really, a life.

As is typical with short story collections, many of the works in You Have Never Been Here have seen publication before, but there is value in having them all here, together, preceding or following one another. Like pieces of art or antiquity laid along a path in a museum, these stories echo against and with one another powerfully, making the whole so much greater than the sum of its parts, and providing a great argument for reading these tales from Rickert together, in one or two ravenous sittings. Each new story feels less like a stand-alone text and more like a meditation or rumination on one of the nearly universal themes in these stories: grief, loss, death. The movement, for instance, from “Journey Into the Kingdom,” which features coastal landscapes and bittersweet narratives of the sea, to “The Shipbuilder,” which features those same landscapes, is a natural one, and it allows each story to sink deeper.

Each story in this collection is a gem, but at no point are Rickert’s skills on better display than in the novellete “The Mothers of Voorhisville,” which is an epistolary tale told (nearly completely) from the perspective of a group of mothers in a small town who all sleep with the same, hearse-driving stranger and all have the same weird, winged, sharp-toothed babies. Yes, the weird pregnancy story is a typical one, even an overused one, but in Rickert’s hands it becomes a complicated, carefully considered narrative about hanging on to what you don’t understand and losing what you do.

And beyond all that, it’s absolutely hilarious. The stories are often sad and sometimes creepy, but there are bright moments of comedy that caught me totally by surprise. In the same story (“The Mothers of Voorhisville”), one of the mothers is a woman named Tamara, who, despite having a law degree, is a writer of fantasy novels. Rickert, I’m sure, is well aware of the stigmatized and fraught place of genre fiction in the literary world, and she uses Tamara (whose voice, by the way, is the most beautiful and compelling of all the mothers) to poke back at the literary world, noting how she (Tamara) was denied access to a writing group in Voorhisville:

Later, when the stranger showed up for the writers’ workshop at Jan Morris’s house, she could not determine how he’d found out about the elitist group, known to have rejected at least one local writer on the basis of the fact she wrote fantasy.

“The Mothers of Voorhisville,” like a lot of the stories in Rickert’s book, is, on some level, about how we tell stories, how we sort out our own pasts and presents. The new story in the collection, “The Shipbuilder,” features a man named Quark returning to his hometown, one of Rickert’s signature small, coastal towns. It quickly becomes clear that Quark has told himself a story about his life that is at odds with stories others have told about his life, even if no one is wrong. In this way, the stories in You Have Never Been Here interrogate and deconstruct themselves in a way that is a total pleasure to read, especially if you’re someone interested in how the story sausage gets made.

I could go on about each of these stories. The way Rickert plays with form, always experimenting: in “Cold Fires,” she tells stories within the story, embedded narratives that, like a few of these pieces, draw on fairy tales and ricochet off one another. Or in “You Have Never Been Here,” the title story, how she messes with second person in a way that is at once creepy and fascinating. These stories stick with you after the reading, begging you to consider them further, to take another peek inside the book, to dig deeper into the characters and narrative. There’s so much to say about each one, but I’ll leave some of the mystery for you to discover on your own.

What surprisingly wonderful books have you been reading lately?