Monday, October 17, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 17: His Head Like Melted Wax

Well, this is awkward. Way back in 2008, in my first go ‘round with this October hullabaloo, I wrote a post about Glen Hirshberg, focusing on his story “Mr. Dark’s Carnival.” I wasn’t terribly fond of that story, and felt particularly disappointed given how big a name Hirshberg has become in the world of horror fiction. He hasn’t published too many books, just two story collections, a suspense novel about childhood secrets and whatnot called The Snowman’s Children, and a more recent novel, apparently based in fantasy more than horror, about, of all things, the Federal Writers Project called The Book of Bunk(the unwillingness of any big or mid-sized publishers to take on something as oddball as The Book of Bunk apparently stalled Hirshberg’s career for a while). But he publishes stories at a steady clip (his next book is supposedly another story collection), and is a perennial name in all the round ups of best fiction from a given year. He is without question one of the Serious Writers in contemporary horror, more mainstream and less esoteric than, say, Thomas Ligotti or Mark Samuels, and closer in spirit to Stephen King with his regular fallbacks to idyllic-on-the-surface childhoods, and the world of the American family as maybe not the source of, but the victim of, his horror. Glen Hirshberg is respected and accessible and he cares about what he’s doing. He is a real writer. And I feel like I just dismissed the guy. I won’t pretend that I liked “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” more than I let on, but I’ve long felt that Hirshberg deserved a fairer shake than the one I gave him. Not that he cares, mind you, but I do, and so this year I decided to set things right, at least by reading more of his stuff – I would simply try again (and I did read The Snowman’s Children, which I liked well enough, as I believe I covered to some mild degree in the older post). So now I have tried again. Same results.

I chose two stories, one, the longer of the two called “Struwwelpeter”, from the era of The Two Sams, his first collection, and the other, “Miss Ill-Kept Runt” from just a few years ago and as yet uncollected. Everything I have now read by Hirshberg, one novel and three short stories, is the same in a few crucial ways: each has a morose approach to childhood that it can’t shake, each attempts to shake it, or leaven it, with talk of kids’ games and general rascalry that never, at any point, feels genuine, and each features children that behave like children only when they’re around grown-ups, and even then only barely – among each other, though, they talk and act like slightly stupid adults (also, two of the four short stories I’ve read revolve around Halloween in some way, but for now I’m chalking that up to coincidence). King has his own issues in this realm, but like another artist with whom King seems to occasionally share a soul, Steven Spielberg, he’s never forgotten the energy of childhood, the chaos and inventiveness of it -- or the sheer ridiculousness of it -- and he never has to pretend that he knows what’s talking about, because he remembers. Meanwhile, on the evidence of his fiction, which seems stubbornly rooted to this realm, I’m convinced that at the moment of his birth Glen Hirshberg was no younger than 26 years old. In his stories, all the ten-year-olds appear to constantly be thinking that graduate school is all well and good, but then what?

Admittedly, this last problem is less apparent in today’s first story, “Miss Ill-Kept Runt”, but Hirshberg has other problems to fill the gap. A short one, about ten pages, “Miss Ill-Kept Runt” is told from the point of view of Chloe who, if my math is correct, is just shy of five years old as she and her family pile into the car -- the entire story consists of the family on the road -- leaving their house and moving elsewhere to be near Chloe’s, as she calls them, “Grammy and Grumpy.” This, by the way, is the kind of concession towards childhood thinking that Hirshberg is willing to make – the insufferable cuteness. "Miss Ill-Kept Runt" is full of this, disjointed weirdness such as a game Chloe invented called the "silly-rhyme-pencil game", which consists of saying something, in this case "Bye, house", and is answered by someone else with a rhyming phrase that begins with the word "pencil", like, in this case, "Pencil mouse." "Bye, house." "Pencil mouse." You know, like kids do. This reminds me of that moment in Signs when Mel Gibson says of his children "They should be outside playing Furry Furry Rabbit" and Joaquin Phoenix asks "What's Furry Furry Rabbit?", to which Gibson replies "It's a game, isn't it?"

Plus there's Chloe's brother, who we know only as The Miracle, because he survived a life-threatening head injury when he was five, and who says to his father at one point "Dad, Gordyfoot." First of all, "Gordyfoot" turns out to be a reference to Gordon Lightfoot, a CD of music by whom The Miracle (or perhaps The Miracle!?!?) would like to listen to. I thought maybe "Gordyfoot" was a nickname Mr. Lightfoot once had thrust upon him by his fans, but I looked it up and, the heavens bless us and keep us, it wasn't. So this is one of those things where a family creates some kind of delightful shorthand for themselves, but, as with the pencil rhyme game, Hirshberg has a particular knack for making all this allegedly personal, individual stuff sound hopelessly manufactured. I don't believe a word of any of it. "Miss Ill-Kept Runt" goes horror late, and not very effectively. It's a story with a twist, one I should have seen coming, and one that left me unmoved. "Oh," was all the reaction I could muster.

"Struwwelpeter", the longer story, has many of the same problems, though I must say it starts off quite well. For one thing, here Hirshberg manages to justify the sluggishness that hamstrings all his fiction, especially his characters, and especially his children characters, by setting "Struwwelpeter" in a wet little town near Puget Sound. This, from Andrew, our young narrator:

For hours, we'd prowl the green hillsides, watching the sailors yell at the invading seals from the top of the locks while the seals ignored them, skimming for fish and sometimes rolling on their backs and flipping their fins. We watched the rich-people sailboats with their masts rusting, the big gray fishing boats from Alaska and Japan and Russia with the fishermen bored on deck, smoking, throwing butts at the seals and leaning on the rails while the gulls shrieked overhead.

I think Hirshberg does a terrific job of establishing a setting here, and I was quite intrigued by how this setting would factor into a horror story. "Not very much", turns out to be the answer, and that is really too bad, but Hirshberg also, better than in anything else I've read by him, develops a world of children that seems genuine, and specifically believable. It's nothing elaborate -- four friends, sort of outcasts, a little bit, meet at the home of one of their number, named Peter Andersz, to play Atari. Peter lives alone with him father, a kindly, lonely older man who hangs out with a couple of Serbians and dresses in thin gray and black clothes that are always soaked through. Peter, meanwhile, is kind of a dick, and everyone knows this, and he can sometimes lash out for no good reason at his father ("Hello, Dipshit-Dad," Peter says at one point, an example of Hirshberg's sharp ear for the way kids talk). When this happens, his father refers to him as Struwwelpeter, from a German children's book that taught lessons about bad behavior.

This is left alone for most of "Struwwelpeter"'s thirty-odd page length, most of the rest of it being taken up by the recollections of Andrew and Peter, who Andrew has gravitated to at least partly because his occasionally cold recklessness, about a local eccentric named Mr. Paars, the grounds of whose home the two boys once snuck onto and found a gazebo-like structure housing a large white bell. Upon this discovery, Mr. Paars himself appeared, terrifying the children, and informed them "That bell raises the dead." And then some years later, the two boys, along with their friends the Mack sisters, Jenny and Kelly, decide to go back.

So there's your set up. And to me, this whole idea of a white bell in a gazebo that can raise the dead, along with other details such as a strange pattern in the grass and a few other things, all seem so arbitrary. It reads like a jumble of vaguely weird things to which one could reasonably apply words like "dead" and phrases such as "raise the", and come out feeling as though you've just created the environment for a horror story. Maybe someone could have shaped this stuff into something truly creepy, but Hirshberg just makes it feel like a pile of random crap. No explanation is offered, which I'm perfectly fine with, but on the opposite end no mystery is able to form that would make us want an explanation and, in the face of its absence, wonder to ourselves.

Then there's the kids, none of whom register. The two girls are notably smart (I'm not sure I've come across a young girl in horror fiction who was not notably smart) and Andrew is a blank. Peter's the troubled one, and the center of it all. Well, obviously, he's right there in the title. But despite some interesting use of the idea of doubling introduced by the reference to the Struwwelpeter story, nothing ever sinks in. "Sinks in" as in it's understandable, yes, okay, but "sinks in" as in effected me intellectually or emotionally or in any way that made me respond to its artistry, no. Hirshberg's prose is good insofar as it's not actually bad, but little more can be said for it. It's all just a march of words.

The ending to "Struwwelpeter" generated some interest in me. It is, I guess, a twist, and some would no doubt claim it's a tacky one. They may have a point, I don't know, but I didn't think it was. I thought it actually effectively justified the story's title, and also proved that some ghostly connection between the story at the Paars' house and the actual personality of Peter, if not him specifically, was in place. At this level, it's a smart story -- plus I liked the very last line -- that I didn't buy for half a second.

I tried, Glen Hirshberg. I really did.


John said...

OK, I read “Miss Ill-Kept Runt” the other day and mostly agree with your take. The writing is a little labored in spots and a lot of the details meant to evoke a childish perspective just strike a dull clang instead of resonating. And, for instance, it's not the "pencil-rhyme" thing that rings false to me, so much as the apparent need to go into and provide detailed motivation for such a trifling point. Explaining and trying to contextualize minor embellishments like that can rob them of the spontaneity and vibrancy or hints of complexity they should be bringing to the tale. And surely no one on earth has willingly listened to as much Gordon Lightfoot (Gordyfoot??) as these kids do during this trip.

Still, as far as the basic story goes, I thought it had a potentially interesing, if familiar conceit, which it handled well with some nifty misdirection; up until the end, that is, when it all falls apart. And this, again, comes down largely to over-writing & over-explaining. The ending needed a nastier kick to it, but instead Hirshberg opts to let the reader down gently, spelling everything out in too-obvious terms all the way. For instance, an abrupt cut in the narrative near the end followed by a change in viewpoint, with the reader forced to realize (or try to realize, at least) the horrific significance of what they've just seen, would've improved the result no end.

Still, flaws and all, it's one of the better horror stories I've read in a long time. Just a shame that the middling execution prevents a merely okay story from being a possibly great one.

bill r. said...

Hey, John. I just didn't seen the potential in the story that you did, or certainly not retroactively, now that I know where Hirshberg was going. Even a nastier version of the same thing doesn't sound overly appealing to me.

Your point about the need to explain the pencil-rhyme thing is well taken, though, and I suspect that is the real problem. Had it existed only as dialogue it probably would have worked just fine.

And surely no one on earth has willingly listened to as much Gordon Lightfoot (Gordyfoot??) as these kids do during this trip.

In the early to mid-70s, maybe. But this story was set in the present day, wasn't it? Maybe Hirshberg is just an enormous fan, and wants to start a revival.

John said...

I thought it had some pretty well done creepy moments while we're still unsure of what's going on, up until the last page or so. The kid's creeping distrust of her parent's odd behavior and that sense of wrongness and threat building up in the closed confines of that packed station wagon--that all worked for me, as did the tense scene in the gas station. I liked, too, how Hirshberg keeps us in the dark about the mom's strangeness and apparent sickness, in particular--that may have been the thread that held the whole story together for me, right through the weak patches in the writing.

As to Gordyfoot, anything's possible, I guess, but I could've sworn they went through that damn CD at least 20 times in a row. And now I've still got his "Sundown" song playing in my head, apparently the only Lightfoot number my subconcious could dredge up while I was reading this story. Thanks for that, Mr. Hirshberg.

Anonymous said...

I know im 2 years too late for this post but could someone explain what was going on in miss ill kept runt i read it twicei still dont get it!