Book Bag: ‘A Natural History of Hell: Stories’ by Jeffrey Ford; Horseplay! 25 Crafts, Party Ideas & Activities for Horse-Crazy Kids’ by Deanna F. Cook and Katie Craig

Published: 7/28/2016 12:31:13 PM


By Jeffrey Ford

Small Beer Press

Aside from its catchy title, what distinguishes this collection of tales by New York fantasy writer Jeffrey Ford is its mix of eerie, sometimes violent subject matter and droll narrative voice; the juxtaposition of modern, ordinary settings and dialogue with the strange and the supernatural makes for memorable reading.

Take “The Blameless,” the opening story, in which a suburban couple, Tom and Helen, are invited by one of their neighbors to attend the “Spring Exorcism” of their teenage daughter, Grace.

“This is big now,” Helen tells a disbelieving Tom. “People are getting their kids exorcised for whatever ails them … You know, if your kid doesn’t listen, is screwing up in school, hanging with knuckleheads.”

“You mean sex, drugs, and rock and roll?” Tom asks.

“Basically. I heard it on NPR. A few evangelical groups started and then it spread. … It costs like a grand to get your kid spring-cleaned.”

The couple is joined by other guests and neighbors at the home of the Crory family as the exorcist, the “High Holy Blameless” Reverend Emanuel Kan, comes in and goes through a strange ritual with Grace, then plucks tiny demons from her eye and mouth. Things get really weird when Reverend Kan tries to evict a larger bogeyman from Grace’s big toe and dispatch it with a 9 millimeter handgun.

In “Blood Drive,” another take on modern-day madness, teachers, staff and seniors in a high school all carry guns — it’s mandatory for seniors — and though it’s played as a farce, the story builds toward a blazing (no pun intended) climax. The satire, good as it is, about America’s open-carry gun laws is underpinned by a real fear of where our nation’s obsession with firearms could lead.

Some stories in Ford’s collection, published by Small Beer Press of Easthampton, are also set in the past, invoking more traditional fantasy elements, like ghosts. “The Fairy Enterprise” pits tiny spirits against a greedy industrialist in 19th-century England who wants to build a factory to manufacture fairies. Not surprisingly, he gets more than he bargains for.

Emily Dickinson makes an appearance, too, in “A Terror,” a story based on a line from a letter she once wrote. In Ford’s hands, the reclusive Belle of Amherst gets an unexpected nighttime carriage ride from a mysterious stranger who appears to have sprung from one of Dickinson’s most famous poems.

“Natural History,” National Public Radio says, “shores up Ford's legacy as one of the most reliably enthralling short-story writers in speculative fiction.”


By Deanna F. Cook and Katie Craig

Storey Publishing


Northampton friends Deanna F. Cook (a children’s author) and Katie Craig (a designer and photographer) have combined forces to make an activity book for young children besotted by all things equine.

“Horseplay!,” published by Storey Publishing of North Adams, comes with 68 thick pages in a spiral-bound format, and it includes multiple craft ideas and horsey inserts: stickers, stencils, punch-out pieces for a variety of games.

There’s “Barn-in-a-Box,” for example, which gives young readers instructions for making a horse barn from a cardboard box; the book includes numerous stickers for decorating said barn, such as images of horses in their stalls and a cat perched near hay bales.

There are also suggestions for what to make for a pony party with your friends, some basic details about horses, and plenty of color photos of them. Perhaps best of all: a pullout poster of a pony.

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