I read The Two Sams, a stunning collection of ghost stories by Glen Hirshberg, through an afternoon and evening with a snowstorm muffling the world outside the window of my apartment. The usual traffic noise was diminished except for the sporadic grinding scrape of the plows. Reading each story was an immensely satisfying experience. I would pause after I finished one—senses wide awake, aesthetic hungers sated—to consider if I could stand the intensity of another such exquisitely frightening and revelatory story. After the cold, glittering prairie of "Mr. Dark's Carnival," I had to stop. Night was too deep, and the stories were too good.
Hirshberg's tales are scary, moving, morally ambitious and technically gorgeous. He makes thorough and audacious use of landscape. The brilliant landscape historian J.B. Jackson has pointed out that what is now referred to as "a sense of place" is an awkward translation of the Latin term genius loci. "In classical times," he writes, "it meant not so much the place itself as the guardian divinity of that place." Hirshberg evokes these spirits in places where they are often overlooked: the long, wet grass outside a slumped house on the edge of a Northwestern coastal town; red-limned tire tracks in those frozen Montana prairies where the cold has claws; a locked garage with a salt-saturated door. Swimming recklessly in the rolling, hissing, slapping ocean off the Hawaiian island of Lanai brings a young man and his cousin to a very specific place where something loud and strange is trapped.
Beings detach themselves from shadows—a giant moth, a dark judge-thing with a gavel—with various, lingering results, including common and uncommon forms of death. In "Mr. Dark's Carnival," my favorite story, the narrator is a professor interrupted in the middle of a Halloween lecture with news of a suicide. There is an undercurrent of commentary on everything that happens after that: a compelling discussion of the methods and uses of fear in haunted houses (and ghost stories) which tickles the reader's mind while her or his skin is crawling with first tantalizing and then realized dread.
Before he faces the worst, the pleasurably frightened narrator considers his position that properly walking a haunted house "requires concentration, the patience to allow for moments of electric, teasing agony, a suspension of disbelief in your own boundaries, and most of all, a willingness to pay attention."
This is writing that rewards close attention. The sentences are full of beautiful uses of language. The characters have complicated inner lives that matter to the elegant plots. "The Two Sams" is the most delicate, explicit and powerful treatment of the loss of unborn children that I've ever seen; it's a hard-won gift of a story, as haunted as the rest.
At any given moment while I was reading, the book was almost too scary for me, but by the time I finished in broad daylight, I was in love with the way it pushed me over edges and spooked me with unexpected knowledge of the depths of love and grief. I want more.
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