Why You Need to Be Reading Glen Hirshberg
by Nicole Cushing
I'll fess up: I've only known about Glen Hirshberg's fiction for about a year --but what I know of it impresses the Hell out of me. Glen Hirshberg, you see, is the only author ever to pen a story powerful enough to pierce my armor of cynicism and make me cry.
My ignorance of Hirshberg's work really was inexcusable. In 2008 his novelette “The Janus Tree” won the Shirley Jackson Award and two of his collections (American Morons and The Two Sams) won the International Horror Guild Award. According to his author bio, each October he teams up with Dennis Etchison and Peter Atkins to form the Rolling Darkness Revue, “a traveling ghost story performance troupe that tours the West Coast of the United States.”
(Am I the only one who thinks that has to be a lot of fun for him to do? Not to mention fun for the folks in the audience?)
Oh, and yeah--he's written novels, too (if you're into that kind of thing).
Anyway, let's take the way-back machine to last summer, kiddies. I was in the process of working my way through Ellen Datlow's superb anthology Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror and happened onto his novella “Dancing Men” (honestly, it didn't seem as long as a novella--it felt like a novelette, but apparently, it's a novella).
More than anything else I've ever read, “Dancing Men” evokes the horror of traumatic events reverberating through multiple generations. It's a theme Hirshberg also emphasizes in “The Janus Tree”. In “Dancing Men”, the traumatic event is the Holocaust. In “The Janus Tree”, it's the environmental degradation and exploitation of labor that accompanied a mining town's boom period, still echoing well after the bust. It would be easy for an author writing about such subjects to slip into trite, two-dimensional preachiness, but Hirshberg's work transcends that. The characters are too richly drawn to lend themselves to anything trite.
Another unique and effective element in Hirshberg's work is the way he depicts disturbing supernatural transformations in an extremely subtle, implied manner. In my opinion, this technique makes such transformations substantially more creepy than if they were presented in a more obvious fashion. It's almost impossible to comment further about this without giving away key spoilers, but suffice to say that Hirshberg's fiction does a magnificent job of introducing the monstrosity-who-you-don't-even-know-is-a-monstrosity-until-you-add-it-all-up.
In any event, the take-home message is this, folks: both “Dancing Men” and “The Janus Tree” are must-reads for any serious horror reader.
What do I mean by a “serious” horror reader? Well, I guess I mean the kind of reader who doesn't mind doing a little bit of work along the way to figure things out. I've found that the emotional effect of Hirshberg's best stories doesn't necessarily peak at the very end (although it is strong at the very end). No, the emotional impact of Hirshberg's best work actually peaks about ten seconds after I've put the story down, as I begin to make all the connections. When I begin to piece together all the implications. And when that happens, the feelings stirred up by the fiction increase exponentially. And when that happens, the story takes my breath away--leaves me feeling greater awe and dread than I've ever felt before. And, yes, makes me cry.
I'm now about half-way through Hirshberg's collection, The Janus Tree and Other Stories. Unfortunately, not all of the stories are hum-dingers like “The Janus Tree”. Like any author (including yours truly), Hirshberg's work has peaks and valleys. Sometimes, I feel like Hirshberg's weaker stories just aren't dark enough for my taste, that they sometimes flinch out of the way of the darkness or sort of manage to evade it altogether. (By “weaker stories” I mean stories like “The Pikesville Buffalo” and “You Become the Neighborhood”; stories that struck me as weak in comparison to “Dancing Men” and “The Janus Tree”. When compared to the bulk of horror fiction out there these days, though, they're actually not that bad.)
When he's at the top of his game, though, his work is difficult to match--on par with the best fiction of Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti. Stories like “Dancing Men” and “The Janus Tree” deserve to be read, re-read, and talked about. One of the reasons I'm writing this blog is that I feel that--despite his awards--Hirshberg doesn't get enough credit. Too few people know about him.
Awards juries know that Glen Hirshberg is a force to be reckoned with. It's about time the rest of us did, too.