In the title story of Jeffrey Ford’s new collection Big Dark Hole, a young boy crawls into a sewer pipe and never emerges. The narrator, who witnessed David Gorman’s fateful act, reflects forty years on: “In another five years or so, what’s left of the story will have completely decomposed, fizzed away, fallen back into a big dark hole.” Perhaps that oblivion is the fate of all stories, tales, and memories, but Ford’s stories will linger longer than most. They may not scare or shock, but they rarely fail to disquiet.
Roughly half the stories in Bid Dark Hole are standalones. “Hibbler’s Minions” is a Dust Bowl horror story about the terror that visits a bedraggled traveling carnival, something in the vein of The Circus of Dr. Lao or Something Wicked This Way Comes, albeit with an allegorical bent. “Hibbler” is meant to evoke another name. “Monkey in the Woods” explores childhood fantasies and the fallibility of memory, while in “Sisyphus in Elysium,” Ford takes up Camus’ challenge and imagines the damned Greek king provisionally happy. “Thanksgiving” is a grotesque comedy about a vapid holiday visitor who is not entirely there; in “The Winter Wraith,” a man is gently haunted by a Christmas tree. In “The Jeweled Wren,” a couple investigates a mysterious abandoned house. They fail to uncover its secrets, but learn a harsh lesson about time. “Inn of the Dreaming Dog” is the rare story improved by being told in the second person, and “Not Without Mercy” is a shaggy dog story about a shaggy dog story.
The remaining stories might be classified as “Ford stories.” The author biography apprises us that Ford “lives with his wife, Lynn, in a century-old farmhouse in a land of slow clouds and endless fields.“ Several stories feature a first-person narrator, occasionally identified as “Ford,” who lives in an Ohio farmhouse with a supportive and accommodating wife named Lynn. Ford’s real-life wife, his real-life house, his real-life teaching job, and even his real-life 2012 KGB Bar readings feature in several stories; even stories that don’t feature “Ford” draw from the life he presents in other stories: the latter years of a long and happy marriage, the aching of an injured leg, the creaking of the old house, the bleak winter fields shorn of corn. The quotidian details serve to make the angels and monsters, the hexes and fairies and ghosts, acceptable. Although characters and settings recur, Big Dark Hole is never repetitive. When I read a single-author collection for review, I often find the individual stories blend together in my mind. Each and every story in Big Dark Hole stands distinct in my memory.
In the final story, “Five-Pointed Spell,” an Ohio practitioner of hex magic warns Ford, who has come to him for help and protection: “In real life, the supernatural declines to explain. In fiction, it must. I’m not talking about sleight of hand by some clever magus. I mean events that are truly supernatural. In those cases, the storyline runs deeper than most are willing to dive.” Ford writes fiction, but he attempts verisimilitude in his fantasies: He doesn’t traffic in obvious symbolism, comforting simplicity, or self-evident moralism. We ponder his stories, pry at their meanings, and come away satisfied, if unenlightened.
Like Andy Duncan, Amber Sparks, John Crowley, Kelly Link, or Carmen Maria Machado, Ford employs the tools of fantastic fiction to explore the strangeness of twenty-first-century American life. Like Duncan, Ford strikes me as a regional writer, in the best sense of that term. His stories often occur Southern New Jersey and deepest Ohio; stories about adjunct instructors at Midwestern universities may not be fashionable, but these are lives and locales that Ford knows and understands.
I’ve been meaning to read Ford for at least a decade: He’s an established master of fantastic stories whose books invariably end up on prize lists. Big Dark Hole is Ford’s sixth story collection; his seventh if you count a retrospective Best of Jeffrey Ford issued by PS Publishing. If his previous collections are half as good as this one, and the many awards they’ve received suggest they are, I have some enjoyable catching up to do.
Big Dark Hole is available from Small Beer Press.
Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.