Fantastic Reviews - Story Collection Book Review
Two Sams book cover The Two Sams by Glen Hirshberg

Carroll & Graf - copyright 2003
210 pages

Cover photograph by Brad Wilson / Photonica

Book reviewed March 2004

Rating: 7/10  (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          The full name of this book is The Two Sams: Ghost Stories.  The subtitle is a shade misleading, pardon the pun, since the success of these stories has little to do with ghosts.  The stories work because of Glen Hirshberg's strong characterization and creative prose.

Hirshberg's stories are dark fantasies, but he is commonly referred to as a "literary" author, and you are most likely to find The Two Sams in the general fiction section of your bookshop.  Hirshberg's publisher seems to be positioning him as a writer of modern-day horror stories for mainstream readers, akin to the darker works of Joyce Carol Oates or Stewart O'Nan.  Unlike many authors with literary pretensions, however, Hirshberg does not use style and technique to impress us, but rather (aside from a handful of overlong descriptions) to advance the story or underscore tensions between characters.

Thus, in "Dancing Men", a young boy visiting his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor now living in seclusion in the New Mexico desert, feels uncomfortable in the earth hogan where he is to sleep, because it "reminded me of an oven, of Hansel and Gretel."  Comparing the room to an oven harkens back to the Holocaust cleverly enough, but the allusion to the story of Hansel and Gretel is inspired.  How else can a nine-year-old interpret the history of the Holocaust except as a morbid adults' version of that story?  The allusion is there not for its own sake, but to convey the boy's trepidation toward his grandfather, which in turn adds impact to his eventual confrontation with the grandfather's experiences in the Holocaust and a disturbing ancient magic.

Hirshberg uses such subtle cues to reinforce key events and interactions in each of the five stories in The Two Sams, all told through a first-person narrator.  In "Struwwelpeter", equal parts character study and haunted house story, a father who fears that his son is a bad seed is described "clutching [his] shoulders as though trying to steer a runaway truck."  The craftsmanship of "Struwwelpeter", including its wonderfully apt descriptions of Washington's Puget Sound area (where I grew up), earned Hirshberg a World Fantasy Award nomination and a spot in Ellen Datlow's and Terri Windling's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthology.

In "Shipwreck Beach", a young woman who has traveled to Hawaii to visit her cousin, recently released from prison, sees him slaughter a huge tropical butterfly with a pool cue.  Her narrative foreshadows the emotional effect the cousin may soon have on her when she tells of waking the next morning with a blanket wrapped around her, so that "[w]riggling out of it now felt like freeing myself from a cocoon, except that all I'd become, I suspected, was sadder, blanker, and older."

The one story in which Hirshberg's writing starts to get the better of him and feel self-conscious is the title story.  "The Two Sams" depicts in rather heavy-handed fashion a couple's anguish over recurring miscarriages.  Even in that one, however, Hirshberg manages to tie matters together into an emotionally powerful conclusion.

The only reader who might be disappointed with these finely crafted tales is one looking for nail-biting frights.  The ghost theme is rather understated in these stories.  In each of them the supernatural element is introduced only toward the end (which is why I'm not able to describe the stories in any great detail without spoiling matters), and in at least two it is ambiguous whether there is any supernatural element at all.  Yet they manage some genuinely spooky moments all the same.

If you're looking for old-fashioned campfire chills, by far your best bet of the five stories is "Mr. Dark's Carnival", another World Fantasy Award nominee and Year's Best Fantasy and Horror selection.  A professor of Montana lore obsessed with local legends of a terrifying traveling Halloween spook show gets invited to experience it first-hand.  Hirshberg gives the tale a hair-raising pay-off by misdirecting the reader into expecting a ghost different from what actually appears.

          I recommend all of the stories in The Two Sams.  The worst complaint I can come up with for the book as a whole is that it omits my favorite Hirshberg story, "Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air", the best example of Hirshberg's skill at deftly combining traits to create characters so believable you are quite sure you have met them before.  Check out "Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air" for free at SciFiction (http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/), and if you like it as well as I did, then you'll certainly want to read The Two Sams.
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
vanaaron@excite.com
Copyright 2004 Aaron Hughes

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Links to websites about Glen Hirshberg:
Glen Hirshberg - official site
Rambles: Glen Hirshberg, The Two Sams
Green Man Review: Glen Hirshberg, The Two Sams: Ghost Stories
BookLoons Reviews - Two Sams by Glen Hirshberg

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

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