Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween Week: The Two Sams: Ghost Stories by Glen Hirshberg (novella collection)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

"Any resemblance to places living or dead is sort of coincidental." — from the dedication page of The Two Sams

This collection from author Glen Hirshberg is a welcome refreshment from what has become a decreasingly represented subgenre: the ghost story. In the introduction of The Two Sams, British horror author Ramsey Campbell compares Hirshberg's output to the seminal work of M.R. James, Fritz Leiber, and Thomas Ligotti, and Campbell is willing to "stake [his] reputation that history will hail him as a crucial contributor to the field." That's quite a high expectation for a collection of five novellas, but Hirshberg appears to be up to the test.

From the beginning of The Two Sams, Hirshberg shows that, above all, he knows how to set a mood. He seems to rely on a type of sneaky eerieness to carry these spectral stories through to their seldom predictable conclusions. "Struwwelpeter" is a particularly good example of this practice.

On the surface, the narrator in "Struwwelpeter" appears to merely be relating an adolescent that-one-time-I-got-really-scared reminiscence. The author, however, makes sure the reader understands (if only subconsciously) that these events will build into something else and it's not going to be pretty. "Struwwelpeter" was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and was selected for inclusion in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #15.

Often, as in "Shipwreck Beach," the fright comes from an unexpected place, with Hirshberg using the stage magician's trick of misdirection to get the reader thinking he is being led towards one conclusion while Hirshberg devises an alternate. It's not always obvious where he is going, but he always plays fair and only one of the five stories in The Two Sams is anything less than immensely satisfying.

"Mr. Dark's Carnival" is a particular favorite. It concerns an urban legend come to life and contains a description of a Halloween "haunted house" that had my nerves rattling. Glen Hirshberg can host me on Halloween anytime. "Mr Dark's Carnival" was nominated for both the International Horror Guild Award and the World Fantasy Award and appeared in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #14.

The next story, "Dancing Men," is the only clunker in The Two Sams, seeming to go nowhere in the space of forty pages. I've read other stories involving the Holocaust and not been as unaffected by it as in this one. Even so, it was chosen for inclusion in Ellen Datlow's ghost story anthology, The Dark (not too surprising given how Datlow has nurtured Hirshberg's career throughout, not least by her tenure as the coeditor of those Year's Best Fantasy and Horror books previously mentioned).

Luckily, the final and title story, "The Two Sams," is short and instantly compelling. It begins by addressing the ghosts in our memories but soon reveals itself to be about more tangible fears. Coming after the disappointment of "Dancing Men," it makes a terrific closer by reminding the reader of Hirshberg's strengths, one of which is his ability to cover a lot of ground in a few pages.

Taken individually, each tale in The Two Sams offers a chance to appreciate the subtleties that aren't apparent upon first reading, allowing them to simmer subconsciously until the flavors steam forth. Reading them all at once would be like an unnecessary trip back to the buffet — an overwhelming sense of too much, too soon. Tread slowly, and savor.

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