The Two Sams – Glen Hirshberg

I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews. An ebook I recently purchased via Amazon.

The Two Sams – Ghost Stories

by Glen Hirshberg

Cemetery Dance Publications 2011 (first published as a book: 2003)

There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years.

CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.

My previous real-time review of a Glen Hirshberg book:

All my other real-time reviews are linked from here:



“…and Peter had meant to light his cigarette, not the roll of toilet paper.”

Paars, Struwwelpeter, Andersz (something about those names gets me…like consonants and vowels rubbing each other up the wrong way … ) and I’ve always wanted to read a story about my ancient nursery rhyme friend Shock-Headed Peter.  And despite the real trick-or-treat scenario built up in a ‘genius loci’ town with Mountain, Sound and Lighthouse for haunting ambiance, the believably-characterised ‘young adults’ (is that what one calls them these days?), a grown-up in some playful collusion of a not totally inclusive scare-prank (despite Peter’s Dad, that grown up, being one of their teachers): an ostensible fabrication of a haunted house role-playing game: somehow the ingredients come together as if it is all happening in some ownerless memory-bank within my mind and make my own hair stand on end… explaining, obliquely, the accreting spate of single-handed massacres over my recent lifetime: a ‘young adult’ necessarily become grown up in the emotional war zone with which each foreign field of experience impinges the collective consciousness…while waiting for the long-haired Messiah or Illuminatus to ring the Dig Dug, Ding Dong Bell to pull us from the Well…?  “He was like a planet we visited, cold and rocky and probably lifeless, and we kept coming because it was all so strange, so different from what we knew.” (18 Mar 12 – 3.50 pm gmt)

Shipwreck Beach

“Rearrange the science-fiction section in reverse-alphabetical order.” — “Taking the drive was like traveling backward through evolution…”

Every now and then, I read a story and I know it’s something special. Not necessarily the crucial read of my 60+ years lifetime, but one of those twenty or so that jiggle for that position.  This is one of those.  If Elizabeth Bowen had written a story about a cousinly relationship in catharsis, this would be that story and its deep-structure style. (I can give it no greater compliment: and if you want a stunning experience – assuming you haven’t had it already – please sample the quotes from her work I have collected over time: linked from HERE). In a male-female feisty cousinly relationship (with the female as first person narrator) as well as (during one its time frames) in an environment of an island in what I assume to be Hawaii. Here we feel we are literally dashed or plunged into the scintillating, life-infusing sensations of this island’s very sea-water, coral, dolphins, anemones… We are taken back to darker days of the past, when a drunken road accident mars a whole life (I know one such life with someone I knew decades ago)…  And the lies breaking, like waves, around that catharsis of re-encounter: near Shipwreck Beach: that cousinly relationship swimming to a mysterious  ‘Lost’-type shipwreck-contraption just off this island: redolent with its own ‘ghost’ and that ghost’s ‘Sound’ (cf the previous story’s Sound) – and, earlier, the most incredibly memorable scene with a giant moth in that Bowenesque hotel: a Moth –> Mother? –> with the “…and I felt like a little girl” contiguous passage supporting that resonance of meaning… Can you tell I enjoyed this story (of almost novella size)? “…and there were near-consonants in it, soft r’s and y’s as though whatever it was had known language once and forgotten it.”  Forgotten, and here regained, I’d say: as you dive into this invigorating sea of bright and dark words alike. (19 Mar 12 – 1.55 pm gmt)

Mr. Dark’s Carnival

“His pajamas had zebras on them.”

This is a larger-than-life version of the scare-prank in ‘Struwwelpeter’ … as if a symbolic form of the over-sized moth in ‘Shipwreck Beach’ has now effectively given parthenogenetic birth inside my own private imaginarium by the magical means of a <<Maximum enjoyment requires concentration, the patience to allow for moments of electric, teasing agony a suspension of disbelief in your own boundaries>> form of ‘the synchronised shards of random truth and fiction’.  Mr. Dark’s Carnival is an extreme audience-participation in or audience-vulnerability to a whole town’s ‘theatre’ for Halloween: which we start piecing together in parallel with how the students are encouraged to do it earlier in the story by a slowly cumulative gestalt of jokingly-concocted and seriously-thought-to-be-real ‘primary sources’. A fabrication or not, this ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ experience is the most interesting case-study in ‘paradoxically-enjoyable-with-real-frights-experiences’ or in Contraptive Horror that I’ve ever encountered. “No one gets to go inside with the person they came with.” Above all, however, it is compelling fiction with further plunges into tactile experiences to compare with those earlier Hawaiian island ones I mentioned. But here it’s not sea-water… [There are also references to the zoo and the cage – and this story would have been perfect in the recent VanderMeer ‘The Weird’ gestalt and, retrocausally, I find myself hoping to escort this story that I have just read for the first time towards a situation where it will have been included by the time we get there!] “If this was a prank, or an imitation, it was the best yet. And if it wasn’t a prank…” (sic: ellipsis) (20 Mar 12 – 2.10 pm)

Dancing Men

She’d made me teach her how to say it right, grind the s and z and k together into that single, Slavic snarl of sound.”

This is a deeply poignant story that I need to read more than once. A real-time review, for me, has always been based on an initial reading of a whole book, even if I plan to read some of it again after finishing the review. So just on a single reading… Despite this having the background of the Holocaust, there is still an element of enforced prank (here by the protagonist’s father in taking him to see his grandfather): or rather a ritual performed; a type of reenactment-contraption that reveals the horrifying truth (as earlier in the contrivance haunted house or the ‘Lost’ shipwreck-mystery): a story, here with a skein of puppets as it were from a different Halloween*, a plot that is organically parallel to ‘Mr Dark’s Carnival’ in that it starts with the protagonist’s students and their attitude to him and then, later, his ‘ritual’, an ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ deliberate self-fright here in the form of a revisit to his heritage, the hinterland or backstory of his father and grandfather, and the necessary catharsis from a fabrication of ‘alive’ wooden effigies or an object like a dead bat-creature related to that earlier moth — all potential Golems that emblemise the experience of his grandfather in the war and the Polish concentration camps and the Wandering Jew that needs always to assuage a personal spiritual diaspora: and the final encounter with the ‘earth’s core’ of self through a cross-section of time and fate and blood-links and those Golems, all as retold to us as a story within a story where he is today travelling with his students among the Eastern European sites of those War-time cruelties. [Cf: The Golem used similarly in connection with the Holocaust, I recall, in Nina Allan’s story ‘Feet of Clay’ that I real-time reviewed HERE] *I’m sure ‘Halloween’ is mentioned in this story but I’ve lost it and there is no search facility with an ebook it seems! (20 Mar 12 – 9.25 pm gmt)

Afterthought:- the ‘whittling’ in “Dancing Men” equivalent to the gradually accreting gestalt of ‘primary sources’ in “Mr Dark’s Carnival”…? (21 Mar 12: 7.55 am gmt)

The Two Sams

“…walking through our apartment at night is like floating through a shipwreck.”

As unbearable as any reading of any story could possibly be, yet so fulfilling in itself as a discrete story, plus, in its context here, a combination of all sorts of other emotions as the coda or culmination (or both) to the whole book’s gestalt.  A haunting by lost children: because of some ever inexplicable process of them never really becoming discrete children beyond the mother. The ‘mother’, here, is a teacher; like so much in this book is self-taught by teaching others as part of the organic pattern.  The ‘father’: someone who struggles to come to terms with the hauntings that he senses: and their concomitant pain of hope and hopelessness: surrounded by objects (like so much of this book) that are (similar to TS Eliot’s) ‘objective correlatives’: the Pinnochio clock, the lighthouse, the pumpkin face of the drawers, the glasses-prepared eyesight for nothing to be missed even in a deperate hope against hope of retrieving something as consolation, the cheese/dairy craving that usually accompanies pregnancy but here accompanies its sad aftermath for both parents, fog as ghost-tide, the Holocaust Museum (betokening some oblique connection between womb and Hansel and Gretel’s oven), the grandfather / cousin recurrences towards the end of this story, the lint balls, the ‘visit to the dentist’ (I was actually in a dentist waiting-room today when reading that passage on my ipad), the childishly touching Girards /Giraffes confusion, the tests of underlying conditions re future child-bearing chances (the fragility of physicality where bodily tunnels or corridors can be as easily impregnated as haunted house ones are, I guess) — but, for me, the possum as the ‘objective correlative’ above all such objects: that bat-creature again, the book’s earlier moth: that mother – which was an untutored prediction a few days ago in this review that I had no idea then would bear so much ‘fruit’ here – ironically and without wishing to offend anyone who finds even more sorrow in this story than I do (which I doubt). Fruit that is eventually preserved for sad sickly pickling? And this book’s earlier Carnival (literally)  thumbs floating in the blood-soup that then ties up this ending with such utter sadness: thumbs that once a baby may have sucked as comforters given its future ability to do so. A ghost-tide, indeed, is the best we could have hoped. [Suggested further reading of another fine ghost story that is along this theme: ‘Fragment of Life’ by Gary Fry which I real-time reviewed as its editor’s running commentary here]. “Do we literally dream our children?” I think, without question, I would not have believed a book like this could have existed unless I dreamed it.  I wonder how many books like this by countless authors stuttered with a clash of inconsonance between cup and lip and then only existed as a Platonic Form of itself? But this book does exist.  Here for me electronically, a ghost? Has always existed – or at least since 2003, it seems! A book with a rollercoaster audit-trail: with bumps and invigorating dips, haunted house sections and shipwrecked scenarios through which our-foolhardy-belief-in-our-‘invulnerable’-carriage can journey, with pangs and sorrows, rites and tribulations, a paradoxically uplifting engagement with the world’s dark history as well as with personal tragedy past or present and (if neither) future — eventually a coherence of insidiously or openly implanted leitmotifs reaching what I consider to be the literary gestalt: a contraption or scaffold of words that we can all clamber for its views, views spiritual or mundane – and then dare reach beneath its foundations to see how sturdy it is … or how fragile.  How real  or how contrived.  Only ghost stories of this quality can manage to build such a House of Haunts: to provide us that tension of the possible and the impossible. Genuine scare or well-intentioned prank. Darkness or light at the end of the next tunnel…

[As is usual with all my real-time reviews for the last three and half years, I shall now read the book’s introduction or other non-fiction material for the first time. But I will not be back here to review it. (I notice it is by Ramsey Campbell in this book and I’m sure it will additionally give me valuable food for thought.)]

END (21 Mar 12: 2.55 pm gmt)


Filed under Uncategorized

3 responses to “The Two Sams – Glen Hirshberg

  1. Pingback: The Book of Bunk – by Glen Hirshberg | The Nemonicon

  2. I have recently discovered a new writer whose works go straight into my reading-lifetime’s Hall of Fame:

    American Morons

    The Two Sams

    The Janus Tree and other stories

    The Book of Bunk

    I intend to review ‘The Snowman’s Children’ as soon as Amazon UK re-stocks following my order of it. There is no Kindle version in UK.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s