Tuesday, January 08, 2008

"The Two Sams - Ghost Stories" - Glen Hirshberg

Let me just start by saying that "Mr. Dark's Carnival", the third on this collection of short stories, is just about perfect. It's a fantastic little jewel on fear and folklore, dream-like, hypnotic and terrifying.

Without it, I probably would rate "The Two Sams" medium-well done - technically correct but lacking a certain "je ne sais quoi". There is no doubt Hirshberg has a first rate imagination. I was particularly impressed with the flashback in "Dancing Men": one minute we're in Prague accompanying a lonely middle-aged jewish high-school teacher whose yearly highlight consists of taking his class on european tours of Holocaust hotspots - when bang! courtesy of a local puppet merchant we're catapulted into his childhood in New Mexico, a vision-quest aided by a local native american, an Holocaust-surviving grandfather and then bang! again, further back into polish forests and gypsy magic. Very nimble.

"Struwwelpeter" is the name of an iconic, XIX century, children's story book, in which baddly behaved children get their comeuppance in a very graphic manner - in Hirshberg's tale we're left not knowing if evil Peter will get his, but with little doubt that he deserves it. "Shipwreck Beach" takes place in a very unusual set, as far as terror is concerned - Hawaii, and for that alone it deserves some points even though it felt a little laboured. By this second story a strange leitmotif in "The Two Sams" become apparent, one that I found quite original: humidity.

There is always slow steady rain, moistness, something dripping or oozing. Sure, when you think about it, getting into knee-deep water in the dark, or even hearing the strange, unidentifyable sounds of water is pretty scary and Hirshberg uses it in a very poetic and intriguing fashion.

The character's psyches is very compelling and feels truthfull: the boy in "Struwwelpeter" who is as attracted as repelled by the hidden cruelty he can sense in his best friend's eyes. The high-school senior in "Shipwreck Beach" feels the same about her cousin: her whole life she's known he's bad news and yet, though she doesn't even particularly like him anymore, she affirms her independence by travelling alone to meet him, heeding some "can't look away" call, young people so often feel towards familial disasters. The small boy in "Dancing Men" has less confused feelings towards the granfather he is forced to spend three days with. Trapped in a wheelchair, with an oxygen mask strapped on and unable to speak, his piercing eyes and his adobe house in the desert are every middle-class boy's very idea of horror.

The title story "The Two Sams" is more sad than scary. Hirshberg portrays the despair of a young couple whose wife is seemingly incapable of keeping a baby in her womb. After two miscarriages, the husband is convinced the foetuses are coming back to lure their new unborn child to their netherworld. The only way to stop them is to destroy the mournful fetishes his wife has lovingly wrapped and stored - the earthly remains of the first two children. This one would make a good film though, you can just imagine the ghost babies sneaking through the house at night and singing their chilling lullabies into the woman's stomach as she sleeps.

All very nice, but "Mr. Dark's Carnival" blows them all out of the water. I just love when a story grabs you in the first lines:

"So the first question, really," I said, leaning on my lectern and looking over the heads of my students at the twilight creeping off the plains into campus, "is, does anyone know anyone who has actually been there?"

The Eastern Montana History seminar, Halloween special, on a curious piece of local lore known as Mr Dark's Carnival, the ultimate scary house, is where the tale begins. Professor Roemer takes apart, piece by piece, the communal myth of Mr Dark, in front of the freshest batch of college students every year. Inside though, he is a true believer - or rather, if he unravels every phony account of the Carnival, it is only because he yearns to find the original, the only, the unimitable, the ultimate frightening experience. He is forced to cut his lecture short, after being told a brilliant yet volatile graduate student has commited suicide. Not long afterwards a hobo will press two invitations into his hand. And that's all I'm saying.

This is Hirshberg's own account of how the story was born.

Quite frankly I didn't understand the ending: was Prof. Roemer killed or brought back to the living? Yet I hardly cared.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

"The Night Country" - Stewart O'Nan

Well, "The Night Country" has a Stephen King blurb on its cover, and I've often thought it would be a fun project to read every book that has one ("Three Dog Life" is another). I got it second hand without ever having heard of the author.

Between the master's (and Peter Straub's) recomendation, the title and the cover, I was expecting something quite different.

New England, Halloween. It's always tricky to encroach on another man's territory, and this is most definitly King's hunting ground.

But "The Night Country" starts off with a bang, the chapter "Something Wicked" which is something poetic, all right. An invitation for a ride on Halloween night with some unknown creatures who turn out to be three teenagers killed in a car crash exactly a year before. O'Nan gives them a voice more seductive than mermaids, as they convince, indeed seduce us, into witnessing their last moments:

"Come, do you hear it? The wind - murmuring in the eaves, scouring the bare trees. How it howls, almost musical, a harmony of old moans. The house seems to breathe, an invalid. Leave your scary movie marathon; this is better than TV. Leave the lights out."
"Do you ever wonder?
"Do you want to know?
Come then, come with us, out into the night."

It reminded me of the end of the first chapter of Kingg's "Danse Macabre", October 4, 1957, and an invitation to a dance, which goes:

"But it's not a hunt, it's a dance. And sometimes they turn off the lights in this ballroom.
But we'll dance anyway you and I. Even in the dark. Especially in the dark.
May I have the pleasure?"

There is nothing more enticing than being lured into that which scares us, through a soft spoken voice - it's also so much scarier to be enchanted so that we walk willingly (if a little bit wary) into the night, instead of being dragged out.

But then the next chapters (aptly named I know what you did and Dawn of the Dead) gave me a funny feeling I couldn't quite name. Then the next couple of chapters came and went and I finally understood that it was anguish. By then I wanted to finish "The Night Country" quickly because it started giving me nightmares. Only after I finished it, and as I thought about it and described did it slowly dawn on me how good it was.

It has to be one of the most unsettling books I've ever read. And O'Nan pulls a dirty a little trick on the reader looking for cheap thrills - you see, "The Night Country" isn't a horror book, at all.

Sure it has teenagers, is set on the days preceding Halloween and there are ghosts - but those are just treats to lure you into the big dark house. Once inside there are no carved pumpkins, no escapism, no scary movies that make kids scream and give boys and girls a chance to snuggle up to each other. Inside are lives so completely destroyed that not even death can save them. O'Nan forces us to look despair in the eye, and for my money it was the scariest thing ever.

Toe, Danielle and Marco met their untimely fate in the shape of a tree, on Halloween last year. They wander among the living, seemingly, a bit unsure what their new duties as ghosts are - except for being present whenever someone remembers them.

As it is, they spend a lot of time with Brooks, the police officer who, it slowly becomes clear, might have contributed to the violence of the accident by giving chase to the speeding vehicle. Unable to stop himself he goes over the photos of the scene almost everyday; his girlfriend left sometime ago and he is completely alone - his only living relative is an Alzheimer riddled grandmother who he visits as little as possible - another something-something to escalate is self-loathing.

Whenever we meet him he is alone in his patrol car, working nights, watching reruns of the crash in his mind, the girl projected into a tree, the moans coming from inside. He also follows Tim.

Tim is the one who got away. He came out of the accident with barely a scratch. He's fine - he just lost his girlfriend and two friends. Make that three; because although Kyle, a heavy-metal loving, marijuana dealing, every parents' teenage nightmare didn't die, he is now more Gump than Hetfield. He sports a crew cut instead of mutton chops, carries a lunch bag, and his mother helps him with his buttons, while Tim drives him to the convenience store where they both re-stock the shelves and clean the floor.

Kyle's mother might be the saddest of all these sorry characters - estranged from her husband who takes refuge in his work, taking care of a severely impaired son, she is denied even the refuge of grief, for she is too busy taking care of a five-year-old in the body of a seventeen-year-old - of all the inhabitants of the night country she is the only one whom O'Nan will deny a final respite.

This much we understand: that Tim wants to kill himself in an exact copy of the accident he survived; that Brooks somehow senses it and is determined to stop him; that the three ghosts cannot stop what is already in motion or even comfort the living with a word, an apparition or a dream, themselves trapped in broken deaths just as their relatives are trapped in broken lives. Kyle too has a ghost, a badass ghost, capable of some telekinesis it seems, but unable to see the other three even though they see him - and are scared of him.

O'Nan offers no redemption. This tale is not told in order to give the reader, in the end, a sense of lives being picked up, however crooked, a whiff of a new beginning. We leave the characters at midnight, just as the final blow descends - after, there will be nothing left to pick up.

My only qualm was the inclusion, in Tim's last moments, of the lyrics of The Smashing Pumpkins song "Today" - frankly it was too corny for words...

But it's just a little thing, it hardly matters. What does matter, what I was left suffering about was - who drive Kyle to work from now on and take him to MacDonald's once in a while? Who will visit Brooks' grandmother? How many ghosts will now follow Kyle's mother as she volunteers at the local library?

In O'Nan's "The Night Country" what gets wrecked, stays wrecked maybe even gets worse. As if tragedy can only draw out more of its kind, as if once broken, people cross out into another country where only silent ghosts, bad memories and the dark keep them company, until they too heed to the seductive voices of the dearly departed to take one last ride into the night.