Glen Hirshberg,
The Two Sams
(Carroll & Graf, 2003)

The five novellas that make up The Two Sams are billed as ghost stories, but I would describe them more as haunting pieces of fiction, which is not necessarily the same thing. Glen Hirshberg has a wonderful writing style, one that has already earned him many award nominations in his young career. It's a mix of the classic and the modern, a sort of Henry James meets Ramsey Campbell, and in fact Campbell supplies the meritorious introduction to this collection. What you get here is the highest literary form of the dark tale.

There is a great deal of variety between the five long short stories collected here, but they all share a wonderful atmosphere and the underpinnings of well-constructed tales. They are not traditional ghost stories; indeed, they could best be described as psychological horror pieces that remind us once again that the most frightening ghosts are sometimes the ones inside our own heads.

The title story is the shortest and my least favorite of the bunch. It revolves around a father trying to deal with the history of two miscarried pregnancies as his wife's third pregnancy enters its final stages. Who can say what kind of connection a father might have to his children who were not to be? "Dancing Men" seems to garner the most critical acclaim among these stories, but this tale of a boy's very strange rite of passage, one linking the horrors his grandfather suffered in the Holocaust with Native American rituals, didn't evoke the same type of feelings the other stories evoked in me. "Shipwreck Beach" is an interesting story set just off the coast of a Hawaiian island. A young lady has come to see her cousin and friend for the first time since he got out of jail and moved to the islands. Her cousin has something to show her, a mysterious boat that sort of just appeared and cannot be sunk just off the coast. The most interesting aspect of this tale is the story that evolves from the young man's history, the mysterious culmination of which comes onboard the strangely otherworldly boat.

If you are looking for real scares, I would direct your attention to "Struwwelpter" and "Mr. Dark's Carnival." The first story is rather a strange one involving a youth's fascination with a mysterious old man's house and gardens, especially a bell that can reportedly raise the dead. The exploration of the house produces some potentially scary moments for the reader, and the story takes a strange and in some ways much more disturbing turn at the very end.

"Mr. Dark's Carnival" is, in my opinion, the best story by far in this collection. It is set in a college Montana town famous for its Halloween celebrations, much of the collective enthusiasm bound up in the local legend of a strange carnival of undisclosed horrors going back many years. The protagonist is a college professor who delights in teaching this local tradition to his students, and for years he has sought the opportunity to visit this ultimate Halloween haunted house experience -- if it actually exists. You have to be invited to the undisclosed location, and this year he receives what might be a genuine ticket to the supposedly legendary festivities. The whole atmosphere of the story is teeming with spooky potential, the experience as it is happening is fully capable of raising a few hairs on the back of your neck, and the ending hits you like a punch in the guts. I have to say, in all honesty, "Mr. Dark's Carnival" is one of the most impressive horror stories I have read in a long time.

If you have your doubts about the continued honing of the darker crafts of writing in this modern age, you will be especially pleased to sample the impressive wares of Glen Hirshberg. This guy is, as they say, going places -- and he is taking a deep sense of the rich history of the horror genre along with him.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 25 September 2004

Buy it from