Be warned: Big Dark Hole by Jeffrey Ford will knock you senseless. While Ford has long been a prominent name in a strange, dark vein of science fiction and fantasy, he’s definitely not one to rest on his laurels. His latest collection only proves this further–while it contains some of Ford’s more restrained and character-focused stories to date, it also features such left-field premises as a monster for hire in a parking lot, a grotesque unwanted Thanksgiving guest who can only speak in empty pleasantries, love notes sent through the sewer system, and one of the strangest alien encounter stories in recent memory. But rather than giving the reader whiplash, Big Dark Hole is a precise balancing act, a heartfelt, weird, and occasionally melancholy tour of the furthest reaches of Ford’s imagination bursting with all the trademark weirdness and wicked humor the author can bring to bear. Despite its slim length, Big Dark Hole is Ford distilled and turbo-charged, a single volume that serves as a synthesis of all his best qualities.
There’s a sense of focus and grounding to Big Dark Hole. While the premises can get very weird, to be sure (the title story involves a boy crawling into his town’s sewer system for unknown reasons and somehow managing to live down there for weeks), there’s more of a sense that these things happen in our world, or at least in one closely adjacent to ours. “The Thousand Eyes” perfectly nails the feel of South Jersey dive bars, for example, and “Not Without Mercy” begins by detailing the lives of an older couple in a snowstorm, spending enough time with them that they feel like real people you might know. There are even a number of stories that take the form of odd anecdotes about the author’s life, even if the “Jeffrey Ford” depicted has a much weirder life than one might expect, what with fairies climbing up his bookcase and occasional monster-slaying. It actually helps underscore the weirdness: when stories take a left turn or fully bloom into surrealist pieces, we’ve already spent enough time with these characters and the more “everyday” situations that it’s easier to appreciate the shift. The reader cares about who these people are, so when things get weird, it’s all the more unsettling.
This sense of focus also helps the collection flow together a lot better. Many times, it feels like themes in one story flow directly into the next, with a story about “Jeffrey” and “Lynn” in their Ohio farmhouse shifting into a story about a different couple in an Ohio farmhouse, then the onset of a snowstorm shifting to stories about winter, each entry in the collection picking up from the last. Finally, the threads of weird folk-horror, surrealist domestic scenes, and even several of the characters and plots are all spun up together into the offbeat, haunting finale “Five-Pointed Spell,” a story that sees the fictional Ford caught up in folk magic, pre-emptive curses, and a nightmarish visit to New York, giving the collection a fitting conclusion. It helps the stories all feel of a piece while still letting them exist as their own bizarre anecdotes and asides, each one adding more to that world just adjacent to ours.
But lest this all sound a little too grounded, rest assured, Ford’s ruthless sense of humor and trademark gift for turning average situations into horrifying surrealist portraits is still entirely intact. There’s a viral story told by aliens that’s intended to use up as much brainpower as possible and shut down a human’s nervous system, a circus of monstrous fleas living on a Dust Bowl-era carnivore who enter into a battle of wits with a two-faced circus freak, and a man who literally melts into nonexistence when people start shouting about how he doesn’t exist and they don’t believe in him. Without giving too much away, Big Dark Hole sees Ford reaching previously unseen heights of weirdness, turning one strange event into even stranger events until suddenly you’re watching an older couple locked in a life-or-death struggle with something that looks like “four pounds of scrapple with a million legs” and you’re suddenly aware it’s not going to be the weirdest thing you read on that page. The grounding and focus keep it from getting too offensively weird, but Big Dark Hole is, for all its restraint, somehow an even wilder ride than most of Ford’s bibliography, the careful balance allowing it to swing harder and hit heavier.
Big Dark Hole is quintessential Jeffrey Ford, everything avid readers love about him in a concentrated burst set to knock them off their seats. It’s grounded and accessible, yet hallucinatory and surreal. It’s heartfelt and melancholy, but also hilarious and terrifying. It’s all these things in one two hundred page package, and contains some of Ford’s best work to date. Those into weirder, more surreal works of horror should find this essential reading, and for those who aren’t, well, maybe a little weirdness might do you some good. Either way, do yourself a favor and seek this one out.
New to Jeffrey Ford? Check out our guide on where to start with his fiction here.