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.

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