Writing Your Dreams: Where to Start with Jeffrey Ford’s Short Fiction

Jeffrey Ford is writing your dreams. Maybe not the dreams about people you know, maybe not the dreams where everything’s relatively mundane, but those dreams where things are just off enough, the dreams where the internal logic makes perfect sense but things are wildly surreal, the dreams where things are always vaguely sinister even when everything seems gentle and relatively bright. Over the course of nine novels, several novellas, and dozens of short stories, Ford has written everything from a manticore that eats people out of existence stalking the streets of New York City to a science fiction author trapped on a rocket ship in outer space to strange forces lurking beneath a pleasant suburban neighborhood in summer. With the UK release this year of the lavish The Best of Jeffrey Ford collection, which compiles some of his best short stories, and his new novella Out of Body hitting the shelves this month, we decided we’d look back and offer a (highly opinionated) guide to his shorter fiction, arranged in order of accessibility.

A Natural History of Hell

A good starting point for Ford, Natural History contains stories that tend to be a little more digestible than some of his earlier works. It’s a quick collection that contains a powerhouse of a folk horror ghost story with “Word Doll,” and even its more obtuse stories tend to hit more than they miss. There’s a story of an exorcism that doubles as a satire of suburban life, a story that puts a weird spin on golden-age science fiction, love affairs with demons, and strange occult rituals, all in a much more conventional style than the wildly surreal works Ford might normally be known for. But while conventional, they still include all the weirdness one could ask for, with Ford’s absurd situations, penchant for oddly lyrical body horror, and out-there names proudly on display. It’s a very good way to get your feet wet, so to speak.

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The Empire of Ice Cream

Empire kind of hits the sweet spot where Ford’s work is concerned. It’s a more focused and polished version of the weirdness that came from his earlier work plus the more incisive narrative experimentation of his later collections, with a certain lyrical bent that adds some significant texture and flavor to the stories. It also contains some of the more grounded works (“A Night in the Tropics,” for example, about a cursed chess set), though it does make room for the weird, including a group of faeries living in a sandcastle before it’s washed away, a synesthete who sees the woman of his dreams whenever he eats a specific kind of ice cream at an ice cream parlor, and a model town built by two brothers that starts to have a strange effect on the outside world. It’s accessible enough that those who want to start with the earlier stories have a good jumping-off point, and polished enough that the weirdness, humor, and bizarre beauty of Ford’s worlds comes through all the same, perhaps even a little brighter. 

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The Drowned Life

Above all else, The Drowned Life is versatile. The stories in Drowned Life are familiar, but all of them put Ford’s own spin on the things you might feel like you know. “Ariadne’s Mother” is a human drama with a quick twist, but it’s over in about a page, a quick strike that packs the punch of a much longer work. The title story foregrounds a metaphor before turning into a bizarre urban horror-fantasy as the protagonist first explores and then tries to escape an underwater city and a metal shark called “Financial Ruin.” Stories of small-town life slide into body horror, nostalgic reminiscences are filled with strange creatures… there’s just enough familiar material to hold on to, enough to make you think “oh, I get this,” before suddenly you realize that you’re someplace entirely different (and loving every second). It’s uniquely Ford, with its surrealist images and darkly funny narratives, but its more wild experimentation and tendency to pull the rug out from under its readers at times make it a better second step than a first one.

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The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant

Ford’s first collection is, of course, excellent. It contains some unnerving-yet-fantastic stories, such as “Creation,” about a boy creating a weird wooden facsimile of his father, the title story of a fantasy author’s continuity editor who eventually helps his creations rebel, and numerous others about weird curses, far-off worlds, and a city on a distant planet where everyone wears spacesuits that look like classic movie stars. It also hangs together as Ford experimenting with fantasy and science fiction, inverting and twisting various stories into new forms as he goes. But as his debut collection, it’s a bit rough for a first start point, and a lot of the things explored here have the kinks ironed out and are taken to weirder places in other collections, so it’s probably best to get a good taste before venturing this far back. 

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Crackpot Palace

Crackpot Palace is an incredible selection of short stories. That said, it also definitely lives up to that title, beginning with a bizarre crime story that twists and turns with almost every page and continuing with hallucinogenic gem after hallucinogenic gem, stories of pine barrens legends, cities obsessed with miniaturization, and a spider that burrows into a human’s brain before starting plans of world domination. Where The Drowned Life tends to start slowly enough that the rug eventually gets yanked out from under you, Crackpot Palace whips you right into the full dreamy weirdness of Ford’s work without as much of a net. It’s still an excellent collection, and “86 Deathdick Road” is the standout story: the tale of a man whose evening at a very strange bar lands him in the middle of a series of unnerving moments. It’s just also not the best collection to introduce someone to Ford’s work, as it goes from zero to sixty very quickly. 

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Order Out of Body now:
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