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American Morons
Glen Hirshberg
Earthling Publications, 191 pages

American Morons
Glen Hirshberg
Glen Hirshberg was born in Detroit in 1966, and grew up there and in San Diego. He received his B.A. from Columbia University, where he won the Bennett Cerf Prize for Best Fiction, and his M.A. and M.F.A. from the University of Montana. He is the author of the novel The Snowman's Children, and of two collections, The Two Sams and American Morons. His stories have received multiple International Horror Guild and World Fantasy Award nominations. Glen Hirshberg lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife and children.

Glen Hirshberg's Website
IFSDB Bibliography
Interview with Glen Hirschberg

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Glen Hirshberg's strengths as a writer are his skill in creating a tangible atmosphere of dread -- in part by alienizing the everyday, revealing the horror that lurks behind even the most familiar things -- and his ability to make his stories seem larger than they are. More than many writers, he succeeds in creating characters who you believe have lives and histories that extend beyond the boundaries of the particular incident he has chosen to relate. All his fictions have the feeling of being excerpted from a larger narrative, as if what you are reading is a glimpse through a suddenly uncurtained window, beyond which, once the curtain falls again, the story will continue. The genuine eeriness of Hirshberg's work, and also its originality, owes a good deal to this unsettling sense of inner life.

Hirshberg has a weakness, however, and that's his tendency to let the curtain fall a little too late. The least scary part of many scary stories is their resolution; the monster is much less frightening when you can see its face, the mystery far less compelling once it has been unraveled. Hirshberg's stories often explain too much, or make too much known, undoing themselves with their endings.

The best piece in this slim second collection (comprising just seven stories and clocking in at 191 pages), the masterful title story, doesn't suffer from this problem at all, achieving a perfect balance between mystery and revelation. Two American college students on vacation in Europe experience a vehicle breakdown on an Italian toll road. The students' relationship is also breaking down, and the protagonist's confusion and fear at his girlfriend's growing distance is mirrored in their roadside predicament. They're offered assistance by a creepy pair of men, but it isn't long before it becomes apparent that their saviors may have something quite different in mind. Hirshberg juxtaposes bizarre and dissonant images -- the hot, ugly chaos of the road, the weirdly menacing behavior of the men, a ruined neighborhood transformed into a concentration camp for peacocks, snippets of Roman history, newspaper headlines announcing a series of child abductions -- with the students' cultural incomprehension and the downward spiral of their disintegrating relationship, for a story that powerfully evokes the disorientation of the outsider (and also, explicitly, the current outsider status of America within the world community). The students' brush with horror is tangential; they survive and move on. But, as the disturbing final image makes clear, the horror is always there.

In "Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air," a husband and wife reunite with the old friend who has always been an unspoken third presence in their relationship. Riding uneasy, mingled currents of love and rivalry, they revisit old haunts, including a crumbling entertainment pier that once held a famous merry-go-round. Now it's home only to a dilapidated pavilion, behind whose curtains an enigmatic game of chance goes on night and day. The pier, the pavilion and its strange denizens, the pointless game, the ways in which these things fit into the protagonists' troubled pasts and echo their equally troubled present, are a masterpiece of eerie scene-setting. The suggested supernatural explanation is less compelling, but it's ambiguous enough to leave plenty to the imagination. "Safety Clowns" also showcases Hirshberg's talent for making familiar things terrifying -- in this case, ice cream trucks. A young man mourning the recent death of his mother goes to work for an ice cream delivery company, and discovers that its trucks harbor dark secrets. The really dangerous secret, however, is the one he doesn't suspect until it's too late. Once again, the setup is the most effective part of the story, but the payoff is genuinely scary.

In "Like a Lily in a Flood," a man who has been vacationing for years at a New England inn discovers a nineteenth-century diary detailing a woman's encounter with a fanatical community of Millerites (an eschatological Christian movement that believed in the imminent return of Christ). The diary has been left in the keeping of the inn's mysterious hostess, whose connection to it, and to the man, soon becomes chillingly clear. Effective use is made of the history of New York's Burned-over District, but the witchy, free-spirited female diarist is a disappointingly predictable character. "Devil's Smile" is also a period piece, in which a man haunted by a brutal childhood is sent to shut down an unneeded lighthouse, and discovers that something awful is loose along the bleak New England shore. The setting is atmospheric, the details striking (little nun dolls made by the lighthouse keeper's widow crowd every surface of her home), but here it's the monster that's predictable -- too clearly seen, and for too long.

The collection's two least successful stories also feature some of its finest writing. "Transitway" follows a pair of Los Angeles teachers on the first day of their retirement. Trying to fill the empty hours, they set out on an impulsive expedition that ends in a devastating revelation about the nature of their lives. The characterizations are particularly fine; the evocation of the LA freeways is truly nightmarish, and the themes of abandonment and loss play poignantly on the absurdity of one of the story's real-life inspirations -- the LA City Council's attempt to purge an inconvenient piece of the city's history by expunging the name "South Central" from future maps of Los Angeles. The spooky denouement, however, is too sudden, too far-fetched, and too much at odds with the fine realism of the rest of the story to really work. "The Muldoon," also, is undermined by its ending, though in a different way. A brother and sister discover a hidden attic room in their grandfather's house, filled with the possessions of the two ancient aunts who died there. Inside moldering boxes, they find clues to the horrible truth of the old ladies' deaths, and to their grandfather's possible part in it. It's spellbinding right up until the climax, in which we not only see the ghost, but are told the exact meaning of its existence. This literalization of the story's suffocating atmosphere of mortality and horror removes much of its impact, for a finish that, compared to what has gone before, is a major letdown.

Though the power and originality of Hirshberg's writing isn't always enough to offset his stories' problematic conclusions, in the end, it's the power one remembers -- the haunting images, the closely-observed characters, the uncanny sense of dread. Flaws and all, American Morons is a collection from a writer of impressive gifts, more rewarding in its imperfection than many more faultless offerings.

Copyright © 2006 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Awakened City, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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