Glen Hirshberg has made a name for himself in literary horror as a writer of subtle, creepy stories with high emotional impact, and this holds true in his third collection—a limited edition cloth-bound hardcover from Subterranean Press. What is almost immediately clear on reading is that Hirshberg has a knack for creating pitch-perfect atmospheres through careful wording, atmospheres that either repel or beckon—sometimes both. This skill is particularly well showcased in the Shirley Jackson Award-winning novelette that lends the book its title, in which the setting seems to physically push against the reader. It's an uncomfortable piece to read, a harsh picture of children growing up and lashing out at each other among the bones of a once-prosperous mining town. The landscape haunts the characters, imagery reflecting the town's stagnation: "Robert pointed down the slaggy hillside to the surface, which reflected the moon, alright, but in the hard, flat way tin roofs do" (p. 13). A dead animal looks "oxidized, more like a discarded mining tool than anything formerly living" and prompts the narrator, Teddy, to remark that "even at twelve, I understood that that's what all the residents of Silver City were, even with the Company long gone: discarded mining tools" (pp. 15-16). Dust and rust and flat deadness permeate the story until it crackles with itchy, dry dread. And while the central characters are familiar ones—Teddy, the isolated everykid, and Matt Janus, the tormented bully—this atmosphere makes their conflict all the more desperate. In a different kind of story, the setting might simply serve as a metaphor for its inhabitants' stagnating lives, but by the ending it's clear that the landscape seems menacing because it is—a revelation that comes too late for some of the characters.
"I am Coming to Live in your Mouth" is a truly unsettling tale, driven by loss and grief. While nursing her dying husband, Kagome starts to see shadowy figures standing in the corners of their house, hears them whisper "I am coming to live in your mouth. Because you never have anything to say" (p. 49). The growing sense of terror here flows around images of silence and emptiness: even in the moments where Kagome is comforted by the presence of others, she imagines herself to be "propped in place, like a birdhouse with birds hopping around and into it, even though there was virtually nothing left inside" (p. 56).
This is ultimately a story about the way sickness and death can crack the world and leave those affected by them vulnerable to sinister forces—a theme that recurs in many of the following stories, but is nowhere better-embodied than here. It's a difficult act to pull off, conveying big horror with subtle strokes, and in a few cases I felt that Hirshberg did not get the balance quite right. "The Pikesville Buffalo," for example, doesn't have the payoff that most of the other stories do—it builds a creepy enough scenario, in which the narrator's great aunts are deeply, inexplicably convinced that the buffalo herd and cheetah kept on a nearby farm are in fact their deceased sons in animal form—but ends on the frustratingly ambiguous image of one of the aunts walking towards the cheetah, without resolving the tensions that the story has built. But better to leave too many questions at the end that too few, which is the problem with "You Become the Neighborhood"—the entire thrust of which is to lead to the somewhat pedestrian twist in which a traumatic, supposedly-imagined event recounted by a woman driven crazy by it turns out to have been real all along.
These four longer stories make up the book's first section; the second, Tales From The Rolling Dark, collects shorter pieces written for live readings. The performative aspect of these stories is a great enhancement, even on the page—the immediacy of voice, the insistence of the characters, the quick-turn endings in which realization comes (to borrow a phrase from the ending of "Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey") "like a cobra strike" (p.173). The stand-out is "Miss Ill-Kept Runt," which combines a perfectly-paced escalation of terror with a believable child's point of view. Taking place over the course of a house move, with young Chloe lying in the back of the family car, it's beautifully written—"the stars igniting and the hours stretched longer and thinner than hours should be able to go. Silly Putty hours." (p. 139)—in language that conveys the way that change tilts reality. This quiet surreality quickly becomes frightening, however, as Chloe falls asleep and awakes convinced that her parents, up in the front of the car, are not her parents any more. Her dreams serve as hints as to what's coming—"She dreams cold. Old-cold . . . Straw into gold, hillsides of stone" (p. 145)—letting the reader glimpse the ending through the bars of the narrative as it slowly climbs through. This one gave me real shivers.
The idea of griefs being, in the words of the back cover "at least as dangerous as ghosts" persists throughout, and comes into its own in "The Nimble Men," where another grieving character—a pilot, this time—sees the world askew: "the snow started, white and winking, a drizzle of starlight, and even the air traffic control tower looked ready to lift its arms and step off its foundations and sway" (p. 175). It’s an enchanting askewness, but deceptively so—the deeper the protagonist allows himself to be pulled into the strange beauty of the desolate night-time landscape his plane has landed in, the greater the danger becomes. The nature of the aurora-like lights that lure him onwards is left unexplained, but their magnetism to grief is made clear. The effect is reversed in "Shomer," about a young man keeping an all-night vigil for his dead uncle, where the moment of revelation flips the creepiness around into a kind of comfort when it turns out that the ritual watch-keeping is "performed not for the dead, but by them, for the living" (p. 130).
Though some are stronger in themselves, these stories are all clearly in conversation—a collection of stand-alone tales that resonate with or counter each other, making for a strong cohesive whole. Which leads me to question the inclusion of the third section, Book Depository Stories. I can't know what the reasons for this inclusion were, but "Esmerelda" and "After-Words" feel a little like the awkward, oft-skipped bonus tracks at the end of an album that is otherwise an aesthetically consistent whole. They are not bad stories, and do fit the book's overriding themes of death, illness and loss, but don't pack quite the same punch. What makes them sit most at odds with the rest of the collection is that they share a world, and serve a different structural function to the other pieces. The setting is a future in which books have been left to rot in vast depositories, and these two shorts introduce readers to the subcultures that have grown up around the dead libraries. They are science-fictional worldbuilding stories offering jigsaw pieces of a future world, glimpses into a bigger narrative, rather than the self-contained tales of the other two sections.
The Book Depository stories' high exposition quotient—"Within hours, the first Flickr page went up. Within weeks, the first wiki/blogspot/Facebook groups appeared. The histories of that initial depository were always stitched together out of tall tales and myths" (p. 189)—and the fact that they are subtitled "The First Book Depository Story" and "The Second Book Depository Story" suggest that Hirshberg intends to write more in this world, and they would feel more at home in a collection focused on that world. This might not have struck me as a problem if the rest of the collection wasn't such a well-balanced body of work, but as it was, the preceding stories did not lead me into the kind of headspace in which to fully appreciate the final two. Re-reading them again on their own terms, I found them more interesting, with some finely evocative moments—such as the description of malnourished young bibliophiles "staring blank-eyed into the shadows spread like spider webs across the length of the ceiling, their heads sinking into mouldy mounds of paperback books" (p. 218)—but I don't think they'll be the stories that I remember from The Janus Tree.
While a few stories miss the mark, this deceptively slim volume is full of insistent voices, persistent nightmares, and lurching moments that make the ordinary frightening—a fine book for keeping yourself sleepless on quiet winter nights.
Tori Truslow grew up in Bangkok and is a graduate of the Warwick MA in Writing. She currently lives in the UK where she writes and runs workshops for young people and adults. Her fiction has sold to Polluto, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Paraxis, and the Speculative Ramayana Anthology, and she has reviewed for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Sabotage Reviews, and the New York Review of Science Fiction.