Emerging in the late morning of an overcast day (one novel in 1988 and a handful of short stories over the decade that followed), there was not much indication Jeffrey Ford would become as prolific as he has. In 1997 he produced THE WELL-BUILT CITY trilogy which did well critically, but was not a commercial success. A deluge of short fiction followed, however, and since 2000 he has produced more than ninety stories amidst a couple of novels. Quantity and quality often quarrelsome bedfellows, Ford proves harmony is possible, a fact wonderfully exemplified by his second collection The Empire of Ice Cream: Stories (2006). What else do you want on a warm, sunny afternoon?
The best of the second quarter of Ford’s oeuvre to date, The Empire of Ice Cream: Stories contains a wide range of tales, all written in attentive, quality prose. While style varies only slightly to accommodate the story being told, the subject matter broached is far-ranging. Faery, explorations of the act of writing, Americana, synesthesia, dreams, (superb) barroom storytelling, Weird, the mythological, tall tales, folk tales, dark fantasy — the stories are rooted in a wide variety of modes and moods, which make the collection all the more satisfying.
Opening with one of Ford’s most crowd-pleasing stories, “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” captures the purest essence of faery. Standard storytelling with a most charming veneer, the reader will never look at sand castles the same again. Another story with the essence of faery, at least initially, “Giant Land” opens with “Once a giant kept three people in a birdcage” and then completely evolves into something else, and into something else yet again, and into… You get the picture — but not the end of the story. That, you have to read for your reality-perpetually-shifting-underfoot-self to understand. More readily coherent is Ford’s self-proclaimed venture into YA territory, “The Green Word.” Much darker and more adult than some supposedly “adult” fiction on the market these days, Ford proves that even when dipping into YA material, he can shine. About a forest rebellion, things start with a strange execution and head toward Green Man territory, his “word” key.
Ford is as curious about the craft of writing in his fiction as he is a quality practitioner of it, so a handful of the stories look into the act of putting pen to paper. A story about creating story, “Jupiter’s Skull” tells of a man who often has tea with a mysterious local shop owner with a skull for a doorstop. When she appears to commit suicide, the bizarre button gets pressed. Thing is, the reader doesn’t notice the button was pressed until they are in the middle of the bizarre. A cynical yet humorous look at writer’s block, “Coffins on the River” conjures the spirit of Lucius Shepard, telling of two middle-age artists who have an experience of a lifetime when deciding they need a little boost to their creative energy. Snapshot from a kaleidoscope, such is the feel of the very brief and ethereal strangeness of “Summer Afternoon.” No more can be said save that the idea of creating fiction bounces in and around.
Some of the tales feel autobiographical (an idea often confirmed by the wonderful notes Ford adds to the end of each story), such as “A Night in the Tropics.” It’s barroom storytelling at its best and Quentin Tarantino could not do better in this tale of a high school rebel turned petty criminal. “The Trentino Kid” goes back to Ford’s days as a clam diver off Long Island, but transcends any real history in its denouement. While there may be some structural issues with “Botch Town,” the tone and mood it captures of Golden Age suburban Americana is tip-top. It’s the story of a young boy named Jeff and his just-functional family. The end of one summer vacation finds him, his brother, and sister on the lookout for a neighborhood prowler. As nostalgic as fiction can be, “Botch Town” is reminiscent of Stephen King’s “Stand By Me” while having a flavor, charm, and aim wholly of its own. (This one, which won the World Fantasy Award, was begging to be synthesized and extended into a novel, which Ford did in 2008 with The Shadow Year. That novel also won the World Fantasy Award as well as the Shirley Jackson Award.)
Then there are the stories which defy categorization, starting with the Nebula-winning title story. “The Empire of Ice Cream” is about a boy whose parents think is hallucinatory but is in fact a synesthete. Coffee ice cream tips him over the sensual edge and his world is further turned upside down when a strange girl begins appearing in the ice cream parlor. A brief piece, almost an interlude, “The Beautiful Gelreesh” is a deep dredge of the darkest parts of the imagination and a glimpse of the thimbleful of WEIRD that emerges. Ford himself saying he knows not the story’s inspiration, its escalation of disbelief will only have the reader’s eyebrows raising or eyes rolling. The source of the frontispiece lithograph, “Boatman’s Holiday” is a mix of river of the dead mythologies, but unique for the story that results. The story tells of Charon’s unending ride back and forth across the river of death, taking money from beneath the tongues of the souls on their last journey. Working magic with a story that probably has no right to succeed, Ford proves why he is one of the best by converting Charon’s soul into something of interest.
In “A Man of Light,” a reporter for a small-run periodical is granted an interview with the well-known yet reclusive inventor known as Larchcroft. Arriving in the evening, the man’s entrance curtails only a head. But that is only the beginning of the reporter’s nightmares. While Ford would revisit the themes to more success in “The Dream of Reason,” the story of the man who mastered light nevertheless captures light, dark, dreams, and the dimensions between in classic Ford fashion. “The Weight of Words” works with the idea that “printed words had, according to their length, their phonemic components, and syllabic structure, fixed values that could be somehow mathematically ciphered.” Ford takes the premise in an interestingly personal direction and I’ve never read another story like it.
In the end, The Empire of Ice Cream: Stories is a quality selection of shorts that engage the reader from a wide variety of angles. From “standard” fantasy stories to fictional explorations of the act of writing itself, the collection is anything but predictable. Dynamic range to dynamic prose, the afternoon sunshine is indeed warm.
Published between 2003 and 2006, the following are the fourteen stories collected in The Empire of Ice Cream: Stories:
- Introduction (by Jonathan Carroll)
- The Annals of Eelin-Ok
- Jupiter’s Skull
- Night in the Tropics
- The Empire of Ice Cream (Nebula Award)
- The Beautiful Gelreesh
- Boatman’s Holiday
- Botch Town (Word Fantasy Award)
- A Man of Light
- The Green Word
- Giant Land
- Coffins on the River
- Summer Afternoon
- The Weight of Words
- The Trentino Kid