I got my hands on a copy of Salon Fantastique, the latest Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling anthology, a couple of days ago, and the probably-foolish idea of reading at least a story a day from the book, and writing short blog posts about them, has germinated in my head. “Short” being the operative word; if these start ballooning into 1500-word essays I’m going to start running out of time. I might write about every story in the book, I might just write about a handful, or just this one. We’ll see how it goes.
First up (but not the first story in the book) is Jeffrey Ford’s entry, “The Night Whiskey”, which Nic singled out as one of the best stories in the book in her review, and which Jonathan Strahan has picked up for his year’s best. It’s certainly a strong story, although for me I think not quite first-rank Ford — which should be taken as praising the story with a faint damn, since Ford is so reliably good. It’s also quite interesting as “a Jeffrey Ford story”. In a (slightly rushed) piece for the LBC when Ford’s novel The Girl in the Glass was under discussion earlier this year, I tried dividing Ford’s stories into two types, loud (exuberantly fantastic) and quiet (liminal). In those terms, “The Night Whiskey” is one of the stories that don’t really fit into either category; a quiet story about someone on the edge of a loud one.
The story is set in a small American town called Gatchfield, which would be like any other such town (“one of those places you pass but never stop in while on vacation to some National Park”) except for a unique local flora, the deathberry. Deathberry plants grow only out of dead bodies: once a year some of the townsfolk harvest them and distill the berries into the titular whiskey. There’s only enough in each harvest to produce eight shots of night whiskey, so a lottery is held to determine who gets to drink them. Winning tickets are prized, because in addition to being sufficiently intoxicating that just the one shot gets the person who consumes it blind drunk, the whiskey transports the drinker to a fugue state, or possibly an actual alternate dimension, in which they can talk with dead relatives. The protagonist, Ernest, doesn’t win the lottery, and isn’t involved in the production of the whiskey. Instead, he’s an apprentice for the drunk harvest, helping to round up the whiskey-drinkers the morning after the night before — not the easiest feat in the world, given that for some unknown reason drinkers always climb a tree before they pass out.
Tonally, the first part of the story is surreal, even lighthearted. But there is, inevitably, a shift: a darker side to the drink is revealed. To borrow a phrase that Graham used when reviewing 20th Century Ghosts, “The Night Whiskey” is a masterclass in the rhetoric of endings. (It may not be a coincidence that, like most of Joe Hill’s work, “The Night Whiskey” is ultimately a horrific story; endings are always important, but arguably they’re essential for horror stories to work.) Details from the first part of the story are picked up and paid off; the reader’s understanding of what’s happening is stage-managed so precisely that recognition arrives barely a sentence or two ahead of the explanation (at least, that was the effect for me); and the shift in the positioning of the fantastic, with Ernest never drawn all the way into the wildest happenings at the centre of the tale, but drawn in further than we think he will be, and dealt a sort of glancing blow that reorients his life, is beautifully handled.
My main reservation is the pacing of the opening pages, which seemed to take just a little too long to get to where they were going, without ever quite making Gatchfield either real enough or Twin Peaks enough to compensate. Thinking about it, I would also have liked, just this once, the articulation of the story’s theme to carry a bit more force. The idea — that Gatchfield is a town in unnatural stasis, and the deathberry and its consequences are a sort of re-assertion of a natural law of change — resonates strongly with me, and forms the basis of the ending. Ernest and his girlfriend escape to “the biggest brightest city” they can find, where “Every day there was change and progress and crazy news on the television”. That seems to me a neat inversion of a common fantasy arc, and it deserved to stand on slightly more solid ground, to have more to balance it than the theorising of an eccentric doctor.