Disquieting Aggregations: A Review of Douglas Ford’s APE IN THE RING

There is a gravity to Douglas Ford’s stories that is deceptive in their disquieting aggregations; and if you’re unfamiliar with the offerings from this sapient scribbler, I submit to you an ideal place to begin a highly-encouraged acquaintance.

Ape In The Ring & Other Tales of the Macabre and Uncanny (Madness Heart Press), cover art by John Baltisberger

Ford has assembled seventeen impressive specimens for his collection, Ape In The Ring & Other Tales of the Macabre and Uncanny (Madness Heart Press, edited by Flora Bernard).  The stories showcase both Ford’s narrative fluency and literary dexterity, as well as his thematic preoccupations.  Along the inky tracts of Ford’s nearly twenty tales, he compels readers to confront the vagaries of family dynamics (some heinous — see “Thief In The Night” — and some poignantly deteriorative — see the phenomenal and heartbreaker-of-an-opener, “Wasps”), the guises of gutless grifters, and generally the paths of poor choices.  The title story, “Ape In The Ring,” concludes the collection with a pummeling, with one clenched fist toned in the vein of Donald Ray Pollack, the other bearing the connective tissue of classic Bradbury.

Read more about author Douglas Ford at Goodreads.

While the substantive circuitry of the stories is composed of high-quality wiring, what I appreciate (and enjoy) the most is Ford’s commitment to interpersonal dialogue.  For writers, convincing dialogue is, of course, action in itself, and so it stands to reason that Ford’s stories have a certain traction and momentum — one that is (as I’ve stated above) seductive in its quiet command.  The result is exchanges which echo and linger, unsettlingly in both their implications and ostensible simplicity.  “Is he happy now?” one of Ford’s characters asks another.  “Does he still scream?”
With Ape In The Ring, Douglas Ford displays an ease with his distinct execution of storytelling and his vivid visions, his didactic dreams — I’m confident that readers will be compelled to follow and accept, as one of Ford’s passages unfolds, “the same way she accepted the dreams that raged at her…”

Review: The Imposing Approach of WHAT’S COMING FOR YOU

I became acquainted with the ten stories composing Joshua Rex’s debut collection, What’s Coming For You (Rotary Press, 2020) upon its debut in the late summer of 2020; but the more accurate confession is that many of the themes have been slowly unfolding before me for most of my life.  While I’ve gained more explicit clues from his non-fiction writing (Rex penned an outstanding feature in September, 2020, with Ginger Nuts of Horror titled “Early Revelations of Death:  The Book That Made Me”), there are still more subtle hints in not only the style he chooses to employ, but the intentional effect of each tale.

What’s Coming For You by Joshua Rex (Rotary Press, 2020)

Of course I’m not suggesting that, as creators, we relegate ourselves to artistic echo chambers, but it’s difficult to ignore certain thematic and stylistic blips on the cerebral radar.  After all, identification and connectivity are significant components in these reader-writer cycles of galvanization and inspiration; and so I’m not so much commenting on a kindred verve (though it’s pleasant to do so), but rather noting (or even perhaps hearing) how a writer handles the formative effect of macro infatuations.  

In a Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Dirk Zimmer (1984)

But it stands to comment on the certainty that we cut our teeth on similar literary gems (see the beloved I Can Read! campaign) that likely elicit a sense of nostalgia for most writers (of a kindred age-range) who operate in the veins of horror, dark fantasy, and the weird — books like Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark, In a Dark Room, and other Scholastic-Troll-era offerings that appealed to more melancholy tastes of elementary-aged tikes.  In this, the stories are that capture an unwitting precociousness in their characters — “The Whisper Wheel” is an excellent example of young characters who are, perhaps, too smart — or too conscious — for their own good; and the deliciously malignant “Breakout Season” is a reimagined Fear-Street segment for grownups.

In a Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Dirk Zimmer (1984)

Rex possesses a stylistic employment of language that is both disarming and demanding (I mean, consider the seizing implications in the title’s direct, deictic address).  There’s a darkly electric texture to the stories hallmarked in the morose, opening meditations of “The Leap.”  Yet, if there is an insulating thematic structure, I’d offer it to be the usage of houses.  Domiciles of all varieties play a significant role in Rex’s collection.  

The motif — Rex’s “dominion of decay” —  is of sound literary architecture, the metaphor hauntingly introduced in “The Unfinished Room,” chillingly distilled in the second-person narrated, “In Situ,” then conclusively echoed in the final, nearly novella-length story, “The Voice Below”:  “The preternatural ability to sense the residual presence of humans in objects had been … an isolating an often terrifying bane that had made her inclined to attempt to move through the world unseen, silent as the ghosts she sensed in the things that she handled.  In a place like her aunt’s house — itself an antique, full of antiques (many of them ancient) — she had to be especially careful. / However, the older a thing was and, disturbingly, the more violent the history, the more intense the vision.” 

That said, my standout selection in the collection is the poignant, “The Reveal,” a remarkable narrative which continues to accumulate claustrophobia as we tick toward the terminus of the final passage’s tether.

Joshua Rex: “Bloodletting”

Even for readers whose psychometric capabilities are lacking, approximating yourself with these impressive stories will evoke an echo of both intoxicating nostalgia and sober commemoration of dark-tale traditions.  There is a tangible and trustworthy momentum to each story, and though the approach might otherwise, under less capable stewardship, beckon predictability, Joshua Rex ratchets tension so quickly that it’s difficult to anticipate, well, what’s coming for you

Read more at joshuarex.com.