The Janus Tree and Other Stories
by Glen Hirshberg
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
For those in the know, a new horror collection from Glen Hirshberg is cause for hopeful anticipation. And The Janus Tree and Other Stories delivers with a striking and enjoyable mix of stories that showcases Hirshberg’s uniquely personable brand of horror, in which external menaces are eclipsed by the inner demons that drive our deepest fears.
The unifying theme for all the stories in The Janus Tree is death: thwarting it, defying it, accepting it, transcending it—a black narrative thread that Hirshberg weaves in some unusual ways.
The collection’s first section—titled simply “Longer Stories”—features the excellent title story, “The Janus Tree,” in which an adolescent boy named Teddy chooses to confront an evil that has invaded his depressed Montana mining town. As he says in the story’s opening passages:
“So much of your life depends on when you fight. And whom… At the moment it happened I really believed I was fighting Matt Janus for Robert Wysocki, whom I couldn’t help anymore, and Mr. Valway, who may not have cared, and Jill Redround, who didn’t love me. But I was doing it for myself. In a way, I guess I won.”
As Teddy’s somewhat jaded and forlorn tone illustrates, complex emotion is one of Hirshberg’s hallmarks, making his characters relatable and engaging. And his story conclusions are seldom neat or easy, which renders them lingeringly compelling.
In fact, “The Janus Tree” is such a wonderful, multifaceted story that I immediately reread it—partly to pick up on the little character details that you inevitably miss on a first reading, but also to indulge in Hirshberg’s talent for imbuing his most mundane settings with austere beauty and stark portent. Take the subtle alien menace tingeing Teddy’s nighttime walk:
“To our right, the gouged mountains loomed black and treeless. The moonlight pooling in the biggest of the abandoned blast pits up there made it look more like an eye than a wound.”
Another noteworthy story included in part one is the eerie “I Am Coming To Live in Your Mouth,” in which a devoted wife caring for her dying husband begins to see a trenchcoated figure lurking in the corners of her vision, getting closer and closer as he repeats the title phrase. It, too, warrants a second reading, especially its startling final passages.
The second section of The Janus Tree is headed “Tales From the Rolling Dark.” The stories featured here are drawn from “The Rolling Darkness Revue,” a live reading and music tour Hirshberg mounts most Halloweens. The stories are therefore shorter and more conversational, well suited for such an intimate venue.
The hands-down winner here is “Miss Ill-Kept Runt” in which a little girl in the back of her family station wagon becomes convinced that her parents have been replaced by imposters. The ending somehow saddens, horrifies and delights all at once.
Another standout: “The Nimble Men,” featuring two pilots who witness something terrible and unexplainable in the remote Canadian North Woods. Also enjoyable is the oddly titled “Like Lick ’Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey,” about two young women recently turned vampires. Again, it’s Hirshberg’s gripping character work that makes these stories especially noteworthy.
The collection’s third and final section is titled “Book Depository Stories.” The two featured stories—“Esmeralda” and “After-Words”—are linked by the premise that vast book depositories have been left to molder in various cities across the country, attracting book lovers, fringe artists and urban explorers, along with the requisite thieves, junkies, and homeless.
“Esmeralda” is the more atmospheric, uncanny and compelling of the two stories, aptly equating the notion of discarded books with the unquiet dead, throwing in a hint of dark magic for good measure. “After-Words” provides a less metaphysical take on the enduring aspects of books, not all of them beneficial.
The “Book Depository Stories” are a bit of a departure for Hirshberg, striking a dark, New Weird vibe. It’s an intriguing concept, and it will be interesting to see if and how he decides to advance it in future stories.
That being said, not every story in The Janus Tree is a homerun. Despite some colorful characters, the story “You Become the Neighborhood” falls fairly flat and spends long pages doing so. And other stories like “Shomer” and “The Pikesville Buffalo” are somewhat self-indulgent, the horror taking a back seat to fond reminiscences of widowed aunts and recently deceased uncles.
But to be blunt, the single greatest failing of The Janus Tree is that it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of Hirshberg’s premiere horror collection, The Two Sams, which was simply phenomenal.
But only in that context can it conceivably be considered to fall short. In every other respect, The Janus Tree casts a superbly twisted shadow.