Written with a degree of rich imagery and cadence more often found in non-genre literature, Douglas Ford’s collection of seventeen short dark fiction tales, Ape in the Ring and Other Tales of the Macabre and Uncanny, hypnotizes the reader with a polished prose style that isn’t the least bit purple. Every shadowy nook of domesticity is explored here, from the relationship between an adult child and an aging parent, to a former ward’s visitation to her childhood foster home, to a boy disappearing within a labyrinth of a family restaurant’s playscape. Ford’s devil is in his details, whether it’s the row of lines alongside a woman’s mouth that divulges her age, the thin fabric of a pair of pants that reveals the outline of panties beneath, or even a comparison of parents’ neglect of their first-born to a mother cat abandoning her kittens.
There wasn’t a story that I disliked: a rare occurrence no matter how gifted the writer is. In “Wasps,” a daughter recounts her mother’s slow descent into dementia after the latter divulges an unsettling anecdote from long ago, and the daughter vacillates between fearing her mother’s delusions and—even worse—believing the story may be true. “Dial a Dad” serves anonymous help to the fatherless children who call the toll-free number with a complimentary side order of mayhem, and “It’s Our Sky of Melting Butter” provides the reader with a sly and scary glimpse of what pleasure, pain, and confusion might await us when death arrives. In “The Watcher,” Ford builds tension surrounding an anonymous sexual encounter like a master bricklayer building a fortress, adding detail after detail until I could not pry my hands from the pages until I knew how the story would end. I was similarly rapt during “I Have a Confession” when a woman whose husband was recently murdered self-medicates to deal with the loss; it is when someone resembling her late lover begins visiting her at night that her real mental anguish begins. My favorite story in the collection, however, has to be “The Middle Child.” In it, a college student returns home to discover his parents have been hiding a secret: he has an older brother he never knew. Ford could have delivered this tale in a straight-forward manner, but he chooses instead to reveal the nefarious characteristics of the family dynamic stealthily instead. The anticipation of meeting the mystery sibling builds to nail-biting intensity akin to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” or “Waiting for Godot”—if Vladimir and Estragon took a heavy dose of bad LSD.
Don’t get me wrong: Ape is not for the reader who likes his horror fast and blood-soaked; there is plenty of gore to go around, but the stories build methodically, delivering a multi-course banquet of dark fiction rather than a paper bag of drive-thru hamburgers. Many of the stories are ones to read and reread multiple times in order to catch the nuances Ford weaves throughout. Ford’s style is reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates’ in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”: the hidden meanings of some stories may be open for interpretation, but the end result is creepy as hell and will stay with you long after you have closed the cover.