The Two Sams
by Glen Hirshberg
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
Call them old-fashioned spook tales with a modern sensibility. In The Two Sams, Glen Hirshberg presents us with five ghost stories set firmly in the here and now, but which are still evocative of the pioneering classics of horror literature. Hirshberg builds this atmosphere by wielding a deft combination of subtlety and shock, presenting us with monsters that are equal parts cerebral and supernatural. As the stories ably illustrate, the menaces lurking in the shadows aren’t half as scary as those of our own making—the ones born of our shames, sorrows, and regrets.
Hirshberg sums it up himself rather poignantly in the collection’s second story, “Shipwreck Beach”:
“And I say we go where our ghosts lead us, drawn down the years like water across a continent. We have no choice, and there are no escape routes.”
Ironically, I felt that “Shipwreck Beach” was the weakest of the stories presented. Yet if it reverberates with so eloquent a sentiment, you can imagine the caliber of the stories I actually enjoyed.
The collection opens, appropriately enough, with the Halloween tale “Struwwelpeter,” where children in a declining Pacific Northwestern costal village decide to brave the dark and explore a deserted house on the edge of town. This is mirrored by 12-year-old narrator Andrew’s exploration of an equally strange and scary friendship he has forged with an enigmatic classmate named Peter, as he sums up in this passage:
“I liked Peter for exactly the reason my mother and my teachers feared I did: because he was fearless, because he was cruel—although mostly to people who deserved it when it wasn’t Halloween—and most of all, because he really did seem capable of anything. So many people that I knew seemed capable of nothing, for whatever reason.”
Though told from the point of view of a young boy, “Struwwelpeter” does a remarkable job of illustrating, among other things, the often elusive dynamics of friendship, and the seemingly little things that either make them stronger or break them apart—all of which forms the psychological underpinnings of a supernatural tale with a twist. And rest assured that we eventually do find out just what Peter is capable of.
The aforementioned “Shipwreck Beach” follows in the collection, in which a recent high school grad pays a reluctant visit to a black sheep cousin on a remote Hawaiian island. Though the ghostly shipwreck of the title does play a major role in the story’s denouement, this is the least overtly supernatural tale of the collection and the most tragically human. Due to this, it felt a bit out of character with the rest of the book. Yet it was rewarding in its own right, as illustrated in the initial quote I cited above.
“Mr. Dark’s Carnival” serves as a fitting centerpiece to the collection, since it reads like a good, old-fashioned ghost story. Hirshberg serves up another Halloween tale, in which a college professor debunks the mystical carnival of the story’s title as a mere myth of the Montana plains—until he receives an invitation to come visit it for himself.
“Mr. Dark’s Carnival” might well have been written while Hirshberg was channeling the spirits of M.R. James or Algernon Blackwood. It’s a tale befitting a night when the wind is whistling in the eaves and a fire is dancing on the hearth, throwing odd shadows about the room. Still, Hirshberg manages to throw in a modern twist, which is perhaps the most enjoyable element of all; we have a central character whose main purpose is to deconstruct the tropes of the traditional ghost story, all the while getting more irrevocably ensnared within them. It adds clever irony to a creepy read.
Hirshberg swings us back to more human-centered horror in “Dancing Men,” in which a young boy is summoned to his reclusive grandfather’s house in the middle of the New Mexico desert to take part in a strange rite of passage. There he learns of his grandfather’s torment by the Nazis at the mass graves in the forests of Chelmno during the last days of World War II.
Where “Dancing Men” really succeeds is in illustrating just how incomprehensibly devastating the Holocaust was to the people who somehow managed to survive it, and how it still affects their families to the present day. And since the story hinges on a supernatural element, Hirshberg also admirably pulls off the unenviable task of adding a new wrinkle of horror to one of the most horrific events in human history.
The collection closes with the title story “The Two Sams,” which is by far the best of the bunch. As told by a father who has lost two children to miscarriage, it serves as the most intensely personal story in the book and is obviously drawn from the author’s experiences.
I must admit that I felt a personal connection to this story; my wife and I have lost children in a similar way, leaving within me a jumble of hurt and raw emotion that I have never been able (or perhaps willing) to articulate. But Hirshberg has succeeded where I couldn’t, and so succinctly and specifically that it was at once cathartic and eerie.
The main supernatural thrust of the story was also oddly true to life, because they do come back to haunt you some nights, and not in entirely bad ways. Most of all, the story is about finding some measure of peace from which to move on, and I thank Mr. Hirshberg for helping me come closer to doing so. “The Two Sams” should strike a chord in any parent who has never had the privilege of knowing their children.
It is appropriate that “The Two Sams” was also used as the title of the book, because the story really represents the epitome of the brand of literate horror Hirshberg is selling: cogent, compelling and overflowing with human depth.
There is only one thing about the book I didn’t like, perhaps its biggest horror of all—the cover art. It depicts a black-lipsticked man with a fedora pulled over his eyes, a spotted ascot wrapped around his upturned collar. What? Is he decked out for a gay Goth morning wedding? It’s seriously some of the gayest cover imagery I’ve ever seen, gayer than a Halloween parade in Greenwich Village. Which would be fine except for the fact that there are no gay themes in the book. In fact, the image bears absolutely no relation to anything described in the book. Obviously jacket designer Ann Weinstock didn’t bother to thumb through the stories before going to work. It’s a real shame, because the book deserves a jacket befitting the character of the exceptional work it contains.
So whatever you do, definitely don’t judge this one by its cover because if you’re looking for the next big thing in horror fiction, Glen Hirshberg may just be it.