The Two Sams

Glen Hirshberg
Carroll & Graf, 2003, ISBN 0786712554; 288 Pages, Hardcover $23.00. [
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Review by Christopher Barzak

In Glen Hirshberg’s new collection of stories, The Two Sams, we are introduced to a new generation of ghosts. Though the ghost story once thrived in the hands of authors such as Henry James and Shirley Jackson, it has lost some credibility in contemporary literature. Instead of dying, though, which is appropriate to this genre, it has found for itself a new audience to haunt, largely the readership of science fiction and fantasy, an audience known for sometimes welcoming the castoff fictions of “mainstream” literature. There Glen Hirshberg’s ghost stories have found their first homes in such publications as Scifiction (Scifi.com), The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (Carroll and Graf), The Dark (Tor), and Trampoline (Small Beer Press).
Collected together, these stories display Hirshberg’s facility with using the subtle nuances that create suspense, not within the framework of a suspense plot so much as within the ordinary seeming lives of his characters. In “Mr. Dark’s Carnival,” a history professor caught up in the local myth of a ghostly carnival finds himself invited to the event that has so far eluded him. The adventure will lead him to a shocking discovery about himself and his relationships with everything around him: his town, his lover, his students. Though Hirshberg takes us on a tour of a horror-filled haunted house, his tonal command never allows us to fully realize just how terrifying the situation is until the close of the story.
In “Struwwelpeter,” the narrator recounts the friendship he once shared with a violent boy who eventually becomes a Columbine-like terrorist. Within this heavily weighted narrative frame, Hirshberg allows for the accretion of a turbulent fondness for the boy who will later become a murderer. The ghosts in this story are hinted at, are possibly only a metaphor for the narrator’s wish for justice to be brought against his former friend, and it is in this psychological complexity that Hirshberg shows off his true talent. Ghosts shine in his narratives as both reality and metaphor, and because of this his stories reach the depths that James and Jackson once plumbed. There are no cheap tricks, no gags or easy spooks to be had here. When something terrifying happens in a Hirshberg story, it resonates, it has consequences, both social and personal.
One of my favorites of the five stories is “Shipwreck Beach,” which tells the story of a woman and her favorite cousin. Their relationship is similar to the difficult one shared by the narrator of “Struwwelpeter” with his friend. The narrator in this story loves her cousin, yet is compelled to frustration with him, as is the rest of her family. At his request, she comes to an island in Hawaii where he has found work in order to explore the ghost of an offshore shipwreck. Once there, the narrator discovers her cousin’s life is not quite how he portrays it – he is, in fact, still in a lot of trouble, going nowhere fast – but she grants him his wish for her to experience the mystery of the shipwreck with him. By the end of the story, she and her family have lost him forever, and it is in this sentiment that all of Hirshberg’s stories reside. He seems to be conveying that the true horrors in these stories are not the ghosts, but that all the ways in which we lose people – the ways in which we fight to keep those we love from destroying themselves or others – are the most terrifying incidents.
A master of setting, character and plot, Hirshberg has a long career ahead of him. Along with The Two Sams, he has published a novel, The Snowman’s Children, about a serial killer who terrorizes a suburban neighborhood of Detroit in the 1970s, and its aftermath.

Christopher Barzak
10 August 2004


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