Jeffrey Ford’s latest collection of short stories, A Natural History of Hell, begins with a story about exorcism and ends with one about making a deal with the devil. The overall collection is not a religious work—rather, it uses various aspects of mythology as some of the inspiration for various elements throughout—but those two stories bookmark the tone of the rest of the collection rather nicely. All of the stories are fantastical, ranging from science fiction to horror.
However, the book can’t be dismissed as merely escapist genre fiction. The stories are morality tales that are intelligently written. The dialogue can get a little hokey at times, in particular in the stories The Blameless and Rocket Ship to Hell. Still, the creative plots with the twists and turns on top of them keep the reader intrigued enough to stick with the book from beginning to end.
The standout short story in the collection is The Thyme Fiend, which centers around a boy, Emmett, who can only quell his night terrors by consuming thyme. One day, he discovers a skeleton in a well, which turns out to be the remains of Jimmy Tooth, a local who died three years prior. After the skeleton is in his casket Emmett begins to see it walk around. Only Emmett can see it and only thyme can stop these visions. Eventually he befriends Jimmy and via a brief visit to Hell, starts to unravel a scandal featuring prominent people in the town. The more he learns, the stranger it sounds and the less people believe him (except for a girl he’s friends with, whom becomes his girlfriend by the end). This leads to further estrangement from the town folk that live a conformist lifestyle. He may not be a freak, but he gains a reputation for having mental problems. There’s no love lost between Emmett and the rest of the town. But at least Jimmy, through his actions, regains redemption and some form of justice.
Other stories throughout the book contain Japanese demon dogs with human faces, failed trips to outer space, and Emily Dickinson making a deal with Death himself in order to extend her life. Freaks, demons, sorcerers and magic of all kinds abound in A Natural History of Hell. Suspense and adventure take turns to tantalize and entertain. I wouldn’t recommend read to this book right before bed. If the imagery won’t give you nightmares, the energy with which it’s written will keep you awake.