I've had a lot of trouble with Jeffrey Ford in the past. I think part of it was his writing style. The best way I can describe his writing is "doom-laden, melancholic magical-realism" which is just using a lot of stupid labels to say this: The man writes dark. In fact, because of the strange surrealist-painting quality of his work, it's actually easy to mistake his work for a lighter work, only to suddenly realize you've made a terrible mistake. But, for whatever reason, I've never been able to get into Jeffrey Ford. And, given that every time I talk about him people go "...who?" and finding a copy of his fiction debut The Physiognomy is like trying to find a sewing needle in a haystack used as a stash by heroin junkies, not many other people have, either. I get the impression Ford is a "writer's writer", someone who writes their books and is lauded by all the 'heads in the know, but doesn't see nearly as much mainstream recognition. Similar to Ford in this aspect is another fantastic short story writer, Kelly Link, whom I cannot recommend enough, but who does not seem to get read half as much as she should.
Getting back to the subject of Jeffrey Ford, though, I recently picked up a collection of his, The Drowned Life. I didn't quite know what to expect from the collection, I'd just picked it up because I'd gotten the itch for Ford's work lately, having forgotten my previous attempts to read The Shadow Year (six of those), and The Physiognomy (two, maybe three). And, as luck would have it, my library had The Drowned Life and The Girl in the Glass right there on the shelf. So I picked them both up and took them home. Because I didn't feel like reading any of the things I'd taken out of the library right away, I sat down and started looking through The Drowned Life. Three stories later, I was hooked.
But while all the stories in The Drowned Life are good, one stands out above all the rest, and that one is "The Night Whiskey". Seriously, I recommend the book as a buy just for this story and "Ariadne's Mother" alone. Why? Well, read on...
"The Night Whiskey" is the story of a small, secluded town of Gatchfield, a town with a secret. Not one of those deep, dark secrets, either. Gatchfield's secret is just, well...strange. You see, in Gatchfield grows a strange fruit called the Deathberry. The Deathberry, so named because it grows on the ground where animal carcasses lay and seep into the soil, is a dark purple berry that the citizens of Gatchfield distill into a drink at the local tavern called "Night Whiskey". Every year in Gatchfield, eight people are allowed to drink a single shot apiece of the Night Whiskey, chosen by lottery. And every year, the chosen drinkers whoop it up in the tavern all night, and then inexplicably file out the door and climb into the trees, where they pass out until morning. Everyone who drinks the whiskey also seems to be drawn into an alternate state of consciousness where they can talk with a dead relative and get insight into what's happening in the world.
The story follows a young apprentice "drunk harvester" named Ernest, who is tasked with pushing the whiskey drinkers out of the trees they find themselves in the morning. Ernest and his crotchety old supervisor practice every day before the fall festival, pushing dummies out of the trees, but Ernest is haunted at nights by a precognitive dream where he pushes one of the drinkers out of the tree to their death. Worse still, the young man Ernest dreams about gets a seat at the whiskey drinkers' table...but there are even darker things afoot in Gatchfield this Harvest, and possibly killing a drinker will be the least of Ernest's worries by the time the festival is over. Because something is trying to get into Gatchfield, and if it can't get in from the outside, it's going to come from within...
I love the way the story plays with expectations throughout. It starts out with an odd festival we don't know much about, setting up expectations that the story will have something to do with the nature of the festival itself. But within moments, the story's expectations have been subverted-- it's not about the nature of the festival, it's about Ernest, with the festival as a backdrop. But it's not actually about Ernest, even. It subverts that, too. Hell, by two-thirds of the way through the story, it switches from magical-realist pastoral to outright horror, and then to body-horror, all keeping within the realm of something crossbreeding Ray Bradbury and David Lynch. In fact, it reminds me (as all dark pastoral magical-realism stories do) of Something Wicked This Way Comes, especially the part at the end about progress and change and having to grow up.
The atmosphere is also brilliant. Jeffrey Ford is an author who understands how to edge his darkness in slowly, as if slowly opening a door wider and wider. At the beginning of the story, apart from its weird tone, it's almost lighthearted. There's a certain sense of prosaic, pastoral beauty to an old man and his young apprentice flipping practice dummies out of trees into the bed of a pickup truck. And even when the story begins to get darker, as the properties of the Night Whiskey are revealed, it's creepy, sure, but it keeps a certain lighthearted tone. Until that turning point. But when things take a turn for the darker, it builds off of the earlier atmosphere while driving it darker, deeper, opening up new threads in the story.
In fact, the only knock I can make on the story is that I'd rather hear more about Gatchfield. I know that's not the point, but hearing what happens to the remaining townspeople would be an interesting scene for me. Even if the story is more about Ernest
But you should find and read this story. You should find and read all of Jeffrey Ford's strange, liminal stories. Put on some Coil, turn the lights down, and pick up The Drowned Life. It's worth it for this one, and the others are good, too.
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