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Darkness And Magic Abound In 'Natural History Of Hell'

"Remember that Twilight Zone where you make your own Hell?" asks the narrator of "The Last Triangle," one of the most haunting stories in Jeffrey Ford's fifth collection, A Natural History of Hell. The character is a homeless drug addict, and the story answers his rhetorical question in ways that are both mundane and wildly weird. Ford is foremost a fantasist — his work has won or been nominated for numerous genre awards over the years — and his fiction has always teased the uncanny out of everyday existence, be it in this world or another. In the case of Ford's junkie, a run-in with a seemingly kindly old woman leads to a job offer that drags him into a magic he had never imagined. It's a reality-straining scenario that's par for the course for Natural History.

"The Last Triangle" is told in lean, street-level language, but Ford also likes to stretch out. In "The Fairy Enterprise," fairies clash with the Industrial Revolution in 19th century England, and the story abounds with lush, period-appropriate prose. Playful and grotesque in equal measure, it shares a tone, if not a setting, with the short, snappy "Blood Drive," a farcical tale of modern-day high school shenanigans that takes open-carry gun laws to a blood-chilling conclusion. For every flash of blackened wit, though, there are mood pieces like "A Natural History of Autumn." Set in contemporary Japan, it unfolds slowly, morphing from a restrained meditation on memory and young love into something ancient, mythic and horrific.

The book's centerpiece is "The Thyme Fiend," a novelette first published on Tor.com last year. A fairly traditional ghost story with few surprises, it's not among Ford's best, but it does excel at atmosphere — saturated in the grit and greenery of rural, early-20th-century Ohio, it evokes an almost Ray Bradbury level of weird Americana. And it reinforces some of the big ideas that run throughout the collection, specifically regarding the way the past exerts its grip on the present.

It's not the freshest theme, and neither are the fairies, demons, historical figures and personifications of death that loom in these pages. In "A Terror," Ford spins a stray line from a real-life letter Emily Dickinson once wrote into a yarn of supernatural proportions; in "The Prelate's Commission," a master painter is tasked with rendering an image of the devil — as long as he can be made to sit for the portrait. Ford milks these familiar tropes, but he does so gently, with lyrical strength and quiet sensitivity.

"The Blameless" is the one story in Natural History that hasn't previously been published, and it's a perfect example of Ford's eerie subversion of mundane life. In it, suburban parents have begun throwing their children exorcisms as rites of passage, and the premise delivers plenty of black humor and bone-dry social satire. Not every story works — "Rocket Ship to Hell," for instance, revolves around the inside world of science-fiction conventions and publishing, and it comes across as myopic and self-indulgent — but for the most part, Natural History shores up Ford's legacy as one of the most reliably enthralling short-story writers in speculative fiction.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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Jason Heller