Mixing the mundane with the metaphysical, the pairings of the everyday and the extraordinary in this collection of short fiction yield supernatural results-a young musician perceives another world while drinking coffee, a fairy chronicles his busy life in a sandcastle during the changing tide, a demonic 16th-century chess set shows up in a New Jersey bar, and Charon, the boatman of hell, takes a few days vacation. Storylines both conventional and outlandish reveal humdrum routines as menacing, or imaginary worlds as perfectly familiar. Allusions to authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne reinforce the fantasy tradition in these tales, while understated humor and moments of sadness add a quirky unpredictability. Also included is the previously unpublished novella, "Botch Town," a coming-of-age story about a boy on Long Island whose family and friends live ordinary lives under threats both real and imagined. Each story is followed by a brief afterword that details its genesis.
In "Coffins on the River," one of several autobiographical stories in Ford's outstanding second collection of fantastic fiction (after 2002's The Fantasy Writer's Assistant), the narrator remarks: "he ideas would fly like bats at sundown, like phone calls from our creditors." Whether drawing on his past as a schoolboy (in the previously unpublished "Botch Town"), a clam digger ("The Trentino Kid") or an adult returning to his childhood home ("A Night in the Tropics"), Ford uses such incongruously lyrical phrases to infuse the everyday with a nebulous magic that erases the line between reality and belief. Sorrow is always quietly present, even in pieces of pure whimsy such as "The Annals of Eelin-Ok," "The Green Word" and "Summer Afternoon," and it becomes more prominent in three tales of people created by others' imaginations: the surreal "A Man of Light," the bittersweet "Boatman's Holiday" and the Nebula-winning title story. Brief afterwords provide both real-world context and a welcome pause between the intensely engaging stories. Both new and returning fans will be entranced and delighted.