Book Bag: ‘Big Dark Hole’ by Jeffrey Ford; ‘Color Theory’ by Bill Arnold

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Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2021 9:10:21 AM

Big Dark Hole: Stories

By Jeffrey Ford

Small Beer Press

 

It can be a little tricky trying to characterize Jeffrey Ford’s writing. The novelist and short-story writer is broadly classified as the author of fantasy, horror, and the supernatural, but he brings a sense of the ordinary and plenty of droll humor to his tales — all the better to underscore the unsettling and unexpected ways his stories can suddenly veer off.

Ford, a native of Long Island, New York who now lives in Ohio, offers more of that mix in his new collection of stories, “Big Dark Hole,” published by Small Beer Press in Easthampton. It’s the second Ford collection published by Small Beer Press, which released “A Natural History of Hell” in 2016.

As in the previous volume, the stories in “Big Dark Hole” include multiple examples of how, as publisher notes put it, “the weird comes crashing in” to stories that Ford begins in a companionable voice, sketching mundane scenes such as kids playing outside, a man washing his clothes in a laundromat, or a painter capturing scenes of local life.

Ford narrates the title story from the perspective of a man looking back on a day he and his classmates were playing after school, running go-carts down a small hill — “a pregnancy of naked dirt” — charmingly named after a giant sewer pipe protruding from the soil.

After a ride, one of the kids, Dave, who’s a bit odd, suddenly pulls off most of his clothes and crawls into the sewer pipe, despite the protests of the other kids. When one girl asks Dave what he’s doing in there, he says “figuring.”

In a story that evokes a very different time, when children made up their own games and spent lots of time outdoors, the local cops and some firefighters are called to the scene, but they don’t seem to do much other than to send a chubby rescue dog named Porkchops — “a black and white beer keg on legs” — into the pipe.

There seems no real sense of urgency on anyone’s part to find the boy, and Dave and dog vanish into what’s described as a labyrinth of underground pipes. Or are they truly gone?

The narrator recalls later in the story how Dave was once seen banging his head against the side of his house, and that he had been “beaten black and blue” by his father for a transgression at school. This hint of past abuse leaves a sense of quiet dread hanging over the story; years later, the old play area has been turned into a housing development, closing the door on memories of the boy who disappeared.

“[I]n another five years or so, what’s left of the story will have completely decomposed, fizzed away, fallen back into a deep dark hole,” Ford writes.

“The Thousand Eyes” offers what seems a more jocular narrative, about a New Jersey painter, Merle, who goes to a seedy bar and nightclub, The Thousand Eyes, on the edge of a swamp; only some people seem able to find the crumbling structure.

Merle’s been working on a series of paintings of local bars, based on photos he takes, and he wants to get a picture of a mysterious lounge singer, Ronnie Dunn, who performs at The Thousand Eyes and is called “The Voice of Death.”

Ronnie does appear a bit rough around the edges — “It looked like they dredged him out of the river. Gray complexion, and kind of barnacles all over his neck and face” — and Merle gets a photo of the singer, which sets off pandemonium (The Thousand Eyes has a rule against any camera use).

But when Merle tries to finish his portrait of Ronnie and the bar, he hears the singer’s voice calling him ever more forcefully to join him in the afterworld: He’s singing one of his songs, whose lyrics go, in part, “Fond Wanderer, you can’t ignore me.”

“Monster Eight” is a laugh-out-loud tale narrated by a sort of alter-ego of Ford, a guy who’s finishing his wash at a laundromat and runs into the “local monster” behind the building, an unimpressive figure who just seems like “a fat guy who sat at a desk made of a plank and blue plastic milk crates.... He was always apologizing for everything.”

The narrator asks the monster what he does all day, and the monster tells him his job is to frighten people just enough to put their day-to-day problems in perspective: “Could be everything from light haunting, calling out their name in a spooky voice in the middle of the night, to shooting right up their toilet and taking a bite out of their ass. It’s all in a day’s work.”

Bizarre laughs aside, “Monster Eight” takes an even stranger tack as the monster accompanies the narrator back to the latter’s rural house to explain his work more clearly, where the two meet up with the narrator’s wife, Lynn (Ford’s wife is named Lynn, and the couple live in a “century-old farmhouse in a land of slow clouds and endless fields,” according to an author’s note in “Big Dark Hole”).

Suddenly the benign-seeming local monster takes on a new dimension — and it’s not good.

Kirkus Reviews writes of Ford’s new stories, “Armed with the paranoia of Poe, the psychological terror of Shirley Jackson, and Stephen King’s empathy for everyday people, this latest collection is both subtle and nightmare-inducing, depending on the story.”

 

Color Theory

Photographs by Bill Arnold

 

Photographer Bill Arnold, who splits his time between Florence and New York City, released a charming collection, “Cars,” about five years ago, a book that was chock full of images of cars and car parts, often photographed in quirky ways, like a 1954 Nash Ambassador half buried in mud on a farm field.

Arnold, whose work can be found in museums like New York’s MOMA and Boston Fine Arts, has another collection out, “Color Theory,” that offers an eclectic series of color photos from western Massachusetts, New York, California, and a few other places. The title is inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1810 book “Theory of Colours,” in which the German poet wrote about the nature of colors and how they’re perceived by the human eye.

From views of the Connecticut River near the Hadley Common, to haloed street lamps and car headlights near the intersection of Route 9 and Damon Road in Northampton, to a blurred view of forest taken from a train window north of New York City, Arnold depicts ordinary settings with unusual twists.

“Texas Fire Pit” offers a close-up view of a campfire in which a small flame in the center of the photo dominates the image; some coals and a few flaring flames can also be seen against the silhouettes of a few logs. Otherwise the picture is entirely dark and overall quite mysterious.

An aerial shot of a snowbound landscape, with a river curving through the center and rumpled land forms — presumably hills or low mountains — nestled against flatter ground, is washed in a strange light that makes the tableau look like a diorama or relief map as much as anything.

As a quote from Goethe in the front of the book puts it, “Newton’s Theory tells us everything about colour except what we see.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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