Jeffrey Ford is one of our finest short story writers, not just in the genre, but in all of fiction. It’s no surprise then that his latest collection, Crackpot Palace, is a brilliant collection of stories that often dips into the surreal, but always brims with depth and emotion.
One of the most interesting things about Ford’s fiction is that it often takes an autobiographical approach, with the author as the narrator and his family and community taking part as well. Many of the stories in this collection fall into this category, featuring Ford navigating the crazy characters and surreal landscapes of places he’s lived.
Many of these feature Ford’s former home in New Jersey near the mysterious Pine Barrens. “Down Atsion Road” draws heavily on the supernatural air and legends of the Barrens and “Glass Eels” portrays the very real glass eel trade in southern New Jersey. “Down Atsion Road,” “Every Richie There Is,” and “The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper” feature Ford as narrator and include members of his family, most often his wife, Lynn.
My favorite of these autobiographical stories was “86 Deathdick Road,” about a party with a distinct lack of alcohol that quickly becomes dreamlike, or perhaps nightmarish. Appearing at this party is the smartest man in the world, and Ford flees it only to encounter some particularly vicious owls. The story evokes the quality of dreams with such deftness, with sudden changes of characters or scenery and while this could easily leave it nonsensical, like the best dreams, Ford imbues the story with meaning and emotion.
Another favorite is “The Double of My Double is Not My Double,” a story about how Ford and his double, who works in a mall dipping things in chocolate, team up to try to take out his double’s double. The story plays with doppelgangers and the meaning of identity, the darker parts of ourselves, and what we depend on to keep ourselves together.
Which is not to say that all of these are drawn from Ford’s life. “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is a wonderful jazz-inspired tale of doomed lovers out for a night on the town (or rather desert) complete with strange gangsters and guns and double-crossing. Once again, it’s the underlying emotion in this story that really makes it shine. This one’s a beauty.
“The Coral Heart” is the closest thing here to a medieval fantasy story, featuring a magic sword which turns its victims into coral statues and a magical floating chair. But there’s a treasure trove of the fantastic here—from a holy relic of a severed foot, to a city in a bottle, to a boy transformed by a spider burrowing into his ear. Ford also riffs on The Island of Dr. Moreau, steampunk, and vampires.
All of the stories but one in the collection have appeared elsewhere, so if you are a Ford fan it is likely that you’ve read some of these before. But in addition to some more obscure stories (like “Every Richie There Is”), Crackpot Palace also includes author’s notes after all of the reprints that shed some light on the stories’ origins.
But even better, the collection includes a brand new story written for the book, “The Wish Head.” Told from the point of view of a coroner back in the 30s, “The Wish Head” feels like a mini novel. Stan Lowell is called in to examine a woman’s body found floating in a creek, a body that seems to show no signs of decay. The story is told with authority, the environment sketched out in such a way that it breathes, and Stan, the coroner with an ivory prosthetic foot and phantom limb pain is one of the best characters in the collection. Like some of the other stories in the collection, the story draws on myth and legend, the truth ever elusive.
If you are familiar with Jeffrey Ford, then you are no doubt familiar with his mastery of the short story. This collection is no different, showing a writer at the top of his form. If, on the other hand, you’ve never read Jeffrey Ford, this is a great place to start, a collection that covers a wide variety of topics, and yet speaks with a strong and resounding voice.
Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator and blogger whose doppelganger had a career as a child star. This is a poor portent for how he turned out, but, thankfully, he hasn’t surfaced in a long time. Perhaps he never will. Rajan’s website is www.rajankhanna.com