Bright Lights and Deep Darkness
After the award-winning The Two Sams, here it comes: the second short story collection by Glen Hirshberg, one of the most respected new authors of dark fiction.
Truth to tell, I found The Two Sams a mixed bag of accomplished, excellent stories and of ambitious, disappointing failures. The present collection further confirms my previous impression. Take, for instance, the outstanding title story, "American Morons", where a couple travelling in Italy has to face the breakdown of their rented car as well as their own paranoia. The tale is brilliant and unsettling, conveying a sense of dread throughout the whole narrative and long after you close the book. (It also made me realize how some Italian mannerisms can look menacing to the uncomprehending foreigner who doesn’t speak the language.)
Another excellent piece is "Like a Lily in the Flood", telling how the diary of an unhappy girl from the last century, revealing the evil deeds of a sect of fanatics, triggers a vengeance carried out through the years. Hirshberg’s dry, precise storytelling discloses the truth little by little with masterly craft.
By contrast, "Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air", revolving around an amusement park on the Long Beach pier, is a misfire. The characters are hazy and uninteresting, the plot exceedingly diluted in too many pages. As the narrative proceeds a sense of boredom invades the reader.
"Safety Clowns", first published in the anthology, Acquainted with the Night, didn’t appeal to me then, and still doesn’t. Depicting the activities of an organization which, under the pretence of selling ice cream, actually deals with drugs, the story ultimately lacks heart and even Hirshberg’s usually vivid narrative style appears opaque and slightly disjointed.
Likewise "Transitway", where two recently retired teachers trying to kill time experience the nightmarish atmosphere of the L.A. Transitway, never really takes off due to lack of proper characterization and the vagueness of the actual threat.
On the other hand, "Devil’s Smile" provides a superb, powerful report of a sea tragedy and its hidden truths through the words of a woman trapped for too long in a dilapidated lighthouse. Great storytelling, imparting a deep feeling of mystery and anguish. Another outstanding story is "The Muldoon". Showing the writer at his best, it is endowed with incomparable narrative skill and uncanny ability to chill and scare. Family secrets are gradually disclosed in a complex, effective plot where true horror lies concealed within the human heart.
Thus it appears that Hirshberg doesn’t take half measures: either he totally succeeds in creating veritable masterpieces or he miserably flops. Talent, ladies and gentleman, it’s like that. The bottom line, anyway, is: buy this book. The four outstanding stories are so great to be well worth the price of the volume.