Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell is that most delightful of things: a collection of short stories in which every story is good. I don’t know about you, but my experience with story collections is that typically there are a handful of worthwhile pieces, an even smaller number of truly great stories, and then a lot of stuff that seems added in just to make a page count. Any given story in Ford’s book could compete for the best story in the book. There is absolutely no filler here; just tale after tale from a fantastic writer with a cleverly twisted imagination.
Perhaps my favorite thing about this collection is that, while every story undoubtable fits into the wider “horror” genre, the stories are not pigeonholed by a need to match a theme or sub-type. The opening story, Blameless, is a hilarious take on a world where exorcisms have become the new parenting trend. The Angel Seems places us in a small village, afflicted by an angel who demands tribute for his unwanted protection. Mount Chary Galore is a classic tale of innocent children and the creepy old lady who lives in the woods outside of town. A Natural History of Autumn is an unnerving mash-up of modern Yakuza stories with ancient Japanese mythology. Blood Drive imagines an America where not just the teachers are armed, but the students are too. A Terror is a weirdly literary take on what might have inspired Emily Dickinson’s most famous work, and while it is my least favorite of the stories here, that’s kind of like saying plain chocolate is my least favorite flavor of ice cream. Rocket Ship To Hell twists a straight golden age of sci-fi story into a horrifying glimpse of the human capacity for cruelty in pursuit of profit. The Fairy Enterprise alternates between hilarious imagery and horrifying consequence. The Last Triangle gives us truly modern wizards dueling across a small town. Spirits of Salt is the farthest from horror of all the tales here, steering deep into fantasy territory, and it is a great swashbuckling tale all the same. The Thyme Fiend brings us back to more familiar territory with vengeful ghosts and visions of hell. The book closes with The Prelate’s Commission, an off-beat story about a world almost just like ours and a young artist forced to find, and paint, the devil himself.
My favorite story of all is the second piece in the book, Word Doll. It’s a beautifully bizarre bit of meta-fiction, in which the author tells the seemingly true story of his own encounter with a strange old woman, and the even stranger museum she keeps. The tale she tells feels like it could be real, and the framing device left me wondering how much of the whole story is true. It’s the perfect sort of ghost story, one where even after the last word is read, you still don’t know how much to believe.
Throughout the book, Ford’s creativity and imagination carry the weight. Not a single story falls into expected patterns or well worn tropes. You won’t find a single Lovecraft rehash or slasher flick retelling here. The closest you’ll come to conventional is probably The Thyme Fiend’s ghost stories, but even there, the application of odd folk remedies and an unusual viewpoint character keep the story fresh.
All in all, I would give this book my highest recommendation for any reader that enjoys short stories and horror. If you aren’t a fan of one of those things, I’d still tell you to give it a try. If you hate both, you can probably go ahead and skip it.