OK, I'll admit it: when I was first asked to do a double review of The Empire of Ice Cream and Black Pockets, I was immediately tempted to surrender to clichés and shallowness. A cliché in the respect of making this review a "light versus dark" piece, Ford's "light" to Zebrowski's "dark." And shallow because I should have known better — that any stories by those two solid authors could be so easily dealt with, categorized, explained away. If I could have done so then neither of them would have risen to the level of prominence they've achieved, and the stories in both anthologies certainly wouldn't have lingered in my mind the way they have, nagging me with questions and prodding me not to look away from the questions and conclusions many of them induced.
That said, however, I will also admit that both authors described their work to me with passages from their own stories. In Ford's case, take the character in his story "Jupiter's Skull" who is letting a recently remembered story spill from her lips: she describes the procession of the tale as "like a magician pulling scarves from his pockets." Even the most seasoned veteran of magic shows can never be completely sure of what that long chain of colorful cloth will bring forth at its end; lesser magicians may finish with just another scarf, but a master may climax with an exotic animal, or a ball of fire, or a flash of light, or anything else the human imagination can conjure to astound the watcher. Yet even this description is shallow in comparison with Ford's craftsmanship — he holds us with the meat of the story as it proceeds along one fantastic scarf after the other, but the endings aren't just for thrills or entertainment, but leave us behind either with nagging questions, or something more indefinable, be it an unsettled disturbance or a vague satisfied pleasure.
For instance, the opening story, "The Annals of Eelin-Ok," gives every indication of being a simple light-hearted fantasy. The opening narrator builds for us what sounds like a cute idea, a miniscule fairy creature called Twilmish who only comes into being when the right sort of sand castle is made, and then it lives and dies in the brief space between the tides, finally perishing when the ocean waves claim its home. In the hands of a less experienced writer this could have become just a nice little tale that barely scratched the surface of its own cleverness, enjoyed well enough and then forgotten. Once the introduction is finished, however, Ford astounds us with sudden unexpected depth: in that brief space of time Eelin-Ok is allotted a life, we follow him from birth (including his almost instantaneous self-awareness and widespread knowledge) to the coming of the tides, joining him in his curiosity about his world, his courage in the realization of the coming end of his life, and even the love he feels for another fairy creature, Meiwa, along with the bond he comes to share with her son. We know all along that the story will end with Eelin-Ok's death, which in Ford's hands makes his life so much the richer, his battles more desperate, and his memory more enduring.
It's often been said that in the hands of a master, even an old idea can be shaped into something brand new and wonderful. Ford demonstrates this for us in the book's title story, which chronicles the life of a character named William who has a condition called synesthesia, which mixes the senses until the boundaries between them are blurred into nonexistence. The example he gives at the beginning of the story tells us that while he can smell extinguished birthday candles, for him "their aroma is superseded by a sound like the drawing of a bow across the bass string of a violin." He adds, "Likewise, the notes of an acoustic guitar appear before my eyes as a golden rain, falling from a height just above my head only to vanish at the level of my solar plexus." But unlike most people who enjoy/suffer from synesthesia (a real condition, by the way), whenever he drinks coffee or eats something coffee-flavored, he also sees a girl named Anna. Ultimately they are able to speak to one another — then not only do William's senses blur, but also his certainty of existence. Is he real, or nothing more than a product of Anna's own synesthesia? The idea fueling the story is old, but the power of Ford's writing brings a new (dare I say it?—a sensory) tang to breath new life, color, and tone into it.
There is one story in the collection about light — or so you might believe from the title and the opening pages. "A Man of Light" is centered around an artist named Larchcroft, who has become world famous for his seemingly miraculous creations of light. Ford's descriptive powers in describing Larchcroft's successes are briefly used but enough to let gleaming visions of light dance in your mind. Even Larchcroft's short explanations of his craft are lyrical:
"The light acoustics in the room, if we can call them that—the barren space, the grayness of the floor, the height of the ceiling, out mass, and of course, the glow of the chandelier, soft as liquid fire—conspire to make all but my head invisible against the background. But when Hoates plays his cello on the floor above, positioned directly over the chandelier, the vibration of the instrument travels through the ceiling and is picked up by the crystal pendants, which vibrate ever so slightly, altering the consistency of the light field..."
I said that you might initially believe the story is about light. Moreso it is about darkness and the creatures (literal and otherwise) of different varieties inhabiting it. By the time the narrator learns this truth, they are already well on their way to claiming and overwhelming him, and the reader along with the narrator both will morbidly marvel that they did not see them approaching.
Each story in the collection is as different from the other as can be, but will still manage to draw in most readers as tales engagingly told. The title character in "Boatman's Holiday" is none other than the fiendish ferryman Charon himself, though not so fiendish as he might appear (unless provoked) — who in fact is searching for something beyond Hell, on that day every century or so when he gets a vacation. "Botch Town" put me in mind of a speculative Spoon River, albeit placed in the town while all of its inhabitants were still alive and up to the things they were known for. "The Weight of Words" . . . well, the only thing I can say about it is that I've rarely read a story as carefully as I did this one, because Ford instilled in me a need to try searching and scanning the text even as I read to see if there was something, somewhere — a subliminal word or phrase, perhaps — that I was missing though it was right below my eyes.
In a nice touch (though admittedly I'm biased since I always enjoy such things), Ford provides commentaries as miniature epilogues of each story.
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— Danny Adams, Some Fantastic, Issue #9, Summer 2006