Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006
US Trade hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 09-01-2006
212 Pages; $30
Date Reviewed: 05-30-06
We like to think of ghosts as ethereal remnants of the dead, as see-through versions of once-solid characters. As difficult to photograph in reality as they are easy to dismiss, ghosts at best might sing to our souls in the keys of remembrance, of grief. As a literary device there is power in this form of ghosts. Writers have resurrected them with sturdy reliability from the time humans first thought to write through to our flying-car-less future.
But our future is not without its own sorts of ghosts. Not the by-now expected ghosts in the machine, but the real ghosts that have haunted us through the ages, the ghosts that the visible dead have been fronting for all this time. In truth, most of us would love to see a ghost, or to be able to truly claim that we were haunted by the spirits of the dead. Oh, we're haunted all right, but not by the dead. It is our own mistakes that haunt us and those around us, the bad choices that fester in the shadows.
Writer Glen Hirshberg understands those shadows intimately and explores them well in his latest collection of stories, 'American Morons'. Though he's found his route to publication in the world of genre fiction, there's not a story in here that wouldn't sit as comfortably in the pages of The New Yorker as in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. 'American Morons' is a finely crafted collection of gut-wrenchingly bad decisions, judgment calls gone horribly wrong and finely sliced errors in evaluation. There is terror here and there are vibes so bad they can't be confined to ordinary experience. But 'American Morons' is an excellent demonstration of just how ordinary the extra-ordinary has become.
The title story starts as the rental car driven by two American tourists in an all-too-gritty part of Italy stops. Yes, it's Kellen's fault, and he feels bad. Worse, he feels impotent, unable to fix the problem, unable to protect Jamie, his girlfriend, and unable even to communicate clearly with the threateningly helpful but overly hairy men who arrive to lend a hand. Hirshberg evokes the post-millennial, post-9/11, post-Iraq war unease of Americans abroad with spectacular but understated ease. His unresolved resolution perfectly portrays a deer-in-the-headlights young man realizing just how big our small world is and how small any individual can be, how small any individual can feel. In the depths of time-lost ancient Europe, how can a stranded American feel like anything other than a helpless infant?
'Like a Lily in the Flood' immerses the reader and Nagle, a man with just a little too much time on his hands, in our own secret history, in his own secret history, where lost is just a beginning. Staying at a remote country house, Nagle lets himself be inveigled into listening to his hostess tell the story of the Millerites, an actual nineteenth century sect that was certain not only that the world would end, but that the date would be April 3, 1843. Hirshberg's tale hypnotically unfolds enveloping the reader and the characters in deep time and distant familial connections. Of course, the care comes when Hirshberg telescopes through time with a flip of his prose lens. It's an impressive if depressing performance.
'Flowers in Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air' and 'Safety Clowns' find their haunting moments in a carefully evoked Southern California landscape. The former story sneaks down to a rotting bit of Long Beach, to the pier that seems to exist in very beach town up and down every coast in the world. There's a wonderful moment of Richard Laymon-esque viciousness here, the kind of filthy detail where the surreal and the supernatural sleep together but wake up in a nightmare. Hirshberg sets his tale of urban decay against a tense triangular relationship, with unresolved affection that slides easily into anger. He's a master of these character-oriented details, and he uses them to make his stories even more unsettling than the settings.
'Safety Clowns' is a job-from-hell story, and not a literal job from hell. The devil we know proves to be much worse than the devil we see in the movies. Instead, Hirshberg informs his work with a very weird and disjointing combination of jovial joy tainted by scurrilously scummy behavior. He also cranks out a fascinating tale of crime fiction with a twist that verges on the supernatural, but doesn't exactly get there. Where it does end up is difficult to say, even though the pictures that Hirshberg paints are startlingly, vividly clear.
You won’t get far into 'Devil's Smile' before Hirshberg paints for you in prose a picture of startlingly surreal beauty. Set on the east coast, in another rotting seaside town, this time in the nineteenth century, Hirshberg's story starts as Selkirk comes to de-commission a lighthouse. What he finds within is beyond all imagination except Hirshberg's. What's notable here is that though the story has some aspects of the supernatural, the most awesome scenes, and they will indeed cause readers' jaws to drop, are those that simply collect bits of our world and rebuild it into something morbidly beautiful.
'Transitway' returns to Southern California with an epigram from noted non-fiction writer Mike Davis. Davis, whose work 'Ecology of Fear' used Los Angeles as an example of how urban planning is designed to induce fear into those unfortunate enough to live within the borders of the modern urban landscape, would surely be proud of Hirshberg's portrait. The sameness of the smoggy days, the undiluted, street-by-street procession of shops, houses and lives wasted one day at a time are brought to life-in-death by Hirshberg's airless prose. It's an interesting technique and an indication of Hirshberg's skill as a writer that he can go from the big-screen, storm-swept historical settings of 'Devil's Smile' to the claustrophobic confines of public transportation, and find the same worm wriggling into the hearts of men.
The final story in the collection, 'The Muldoon', takes a look at a complex family story, pulling apart and putting together a tale told over generations. There's a deep sweetness here that contrasts with some of the darker moments that have preceded it, but it is a sweetness fought for with vigor and skill, a sweetness earned and not dictated. This is not to say that there are no shadows here. There are shadows everywhere, and Hirshberg is not one to ignore the shadows. Indeed, he explores them throughout this collection and while he never shines a light, he does manage to define the darkness.
Hirshberg's 'American Morons' is a perfect example of the power and range of what can be called either literary fiction or horror fiction, depending on where you find it. These stories are not ever gory stories of straightforward revenge. There's little violence and if the supernatural elements emerge at all, they do so slyly, in the background. This is not 'Tales from the Crypt'-style horror fiction. It draws on the heritage of Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allen Poe, or Ramsey Campbell and Herman Melville. 'American Morons' is nothing less than the constantly sorry state of the world we must live in, of the lives we must lead, wrought in beautiful prose with a twisted sense of the imagination. You may have many regrets in your life. You have haunted yourself well, Hirshberg tells us. Here's a mistake you can avoid. Buy and read 'American Morons'. Or live with the potential for remembering this moment, now, in an unimaginable but probably less pleasant future.