Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Janus Tree and Other Stories

Let's begin with the only disappointing thing about Glen Hirshberg's third collection: it includes nothing but the stories. No introduction, no afterword, no story notes, not even previous publication info or an author bio. The stories in Part Two are labeled "Tales from the Rolling Dark," but those not familiar with Hirshberg will have no way of knowing that's a reference to the Rolling Darkness Revue, an annual ghost story tour founded by Hirshberg and Peter Atkins. This may seem a small thing to complain about, but front/back matter is a major element in making a collection feel like a book, a coherent entity unto itself, rather than a set of stories that happen to be appearing together. The division into three loosely-themed parts is a help, but the stories do seem a bit lonely on their own.

Perhaps that's appropriate, though. Hirshberg's great gift is to write about profound loneliness, grief, and regret without the resulting fiction ever becoming maudlin or grandiose. He communicates better than almost any writer I could name the pain, both in the moment and in hindsight, of realizing that you can't make the connection you want to make, that sometimes love and friendship and family bonds aren't enough. His characters are often damaged, hurting each other not out of malice but from deeper, inscrutable impulses that turn them into tragic figures. What prevents them also turning into tragic abstractions is Hirshberg's command of character: even in the shorter stories, his protagonists are never types, because they've been given details of personality that don't fit any cliche. Add in prose that creates a credible melancholy atmosphere in virtually any setting, and it's small wonder that Hirshberg is widely considered one of the best writers of horror fiction to emerge in the last decade.

His first collection, 2003's The Two Sams, was an extraordinary debut despite including only five stories; as Ramsey Campbell noted in his introduction, it was the sort of book to guarantee the author's reputation even if he never wrote another word. American Morons followed in 2006, and while there wasn't a single bad or even mediocre story among its seven, the overall effect was less dazzling than that of its predecessor. The Janus Tree is somewhere in between, which makes it very good indeed. Nearly half of these eleven stories have appeared or will appear in best-of-the-year anthologies, and the title story won the Shirley Jackson Award and was nominated for the International Horror Guild Award. I think it's about time to take a closer look at the work that's won all this praise.

"The Janus Tree" features one of Hirshberg's most evocative settings yet, a ruined, fading mining town whose people are as powerless to control their relationships and impulses as they are to restore industry and liveliness to their homes.
What I remember is walking with Robert one night during the summer after sixth grade, all the way across Aluminum Street past the hunched, dark taverns with their decades-old, hand-lettered signs proclaiming NO MINERS still posted in the windows. Just in case Company employees from some other town with enough miners left to matter decided to come by on a road trip, we guessed. We walked under a ridiculous, blazing moon, down rows of tightly packed, boxy Company houses, their yards full of rusting bikes and truck parts and swingless swingsets, into a wind that pummeled our faces or horse-kicked us in the back, depending on whether we were coming or going... We cleared the houses, and the wind half-lifted us off our feet, but we punched forward. To our right, the gouged mountains loomed black and treeless. The moonlight pooling in the biggest of the abandoned blast pits up there made it look more like an eye than a wound. To the east and below us, the plains stretched out, running free of the mountains.
So bleak a landscape casts into stark relief the dramas the young narrator faces: the loss of one friend, his growing affection for another, and his conflict with a third, a bully and drug dealer whose cruelty might, in their barren town, be mere desperation for some genuine feeling. That child antagonist, inexplicably nasty yet not entirely unsympathetic, makes "The Janus Tree" somewhat reminiscent of Hirshberg's earlier story "Struwwelpeter," but Matt Janus is thoroughly different from Peter Andersz; all they have in common is the insight they provide into the intensity of the lives of young adults, an intensity that, as Hirshberg's novel The Snowman's Children so keenly shows, can reverberate down the years into adult life.

The final element of "The Janus Tree," the one that explains why this book is being reviewed on a horror-driven blog, is the supernatural presence that lies beneath it all. Hirshberg's most powerful stories withhold the meaning of their mysterious phenomena until the end, when the connection between plot and theme flows over the reader in a wave of simultaneously chilling and moving comprehension. (You may be getting a sense that I like this stuff.) Here there isn't even an overt sign of the supernatural until the climax, but the barrenness of the town, in which the closest thing to an inspirational teacher is a man so emphysema-riddled and sedentary he barely seems human, creates an eerieness all its own. "The Janus Tree" stands alongside "Struwwelpeter" and "Dancing Men" as one of Hirshberg's most atmospheric and resonant stories.

The other three pieces in Part One ("Longer Stories") aren't as rich as "The Janus Tree," but they're every bit as well-observed and involving. In "I Am Coming to Live in Your Mouth," a wife facing the last days of her terminally-ill husband and a fraught relationship with his mother begins to see a threatening figure around the house. Hirshberg deftly walks the tightrope of writing about imminent death, avoiding both overblown sentimentality and unrevealing despair in favor of a simple, honest representation of the rhythms of the situation: despair, frustration, fleeting happiness, even more fleeting normality. Which may make it sound "heavy," but everything is woven together so carefully that the story never feels burdened with ambition or thematic program. "You Become the Neighborhood," which is (as far as I can tell) original to this collection, links the personal dramas of several residents, mental illness and loneliness and loss, into what is probably the most touching and humane story ever written about... but I shouldn't give away the ending. And then there's "The Pikesville Buffalo," an easy story to summarize but a difficult one to describe. In plot terms it might sound like a farce, but style and craft turn it into a delicately magical meditation on the question one character asks: "How do you survive the love you outlive?"

The "Tales from the Rolling Dark" in Part Two are somewhat shorter than what precedes and follows them, and since Hirshberg's best stories are usually his longest ones, these are a bit less impressive than the rest. The section is, however, book-ended by two excellent tales of the dangers of grief that were reprinted in successive volumes of Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year. In "Shomer," a young Jewish man is asked to guard his uncle's body overnight, and once he's alone in the funeral home he begins to suspect there really is something to guard it against. It's one of the more purely unsettling stories in The Janus Tree, and it's also another harrowing reflection on loss and memory:
Abruptly, another thought surfaced, dragging with it emotions Marty had forgotten were down there, or convinced himself he'd buried, and he sat hard on the depressed pillow and gripped his knees with his hands. The irony was not lost on him, was in fact unmistakeable. For twenty years-- more-- he'd longed for just one more night alone with Uncle El. Like when he was a kid, and El had taken the train down from college and spirited Marty away to the diner for blintzes, to some minor league baseball stadium he'd never been able to find since where fans hooted every time their Owls scored or threatened to score, to the Delaware shore in the dark in the middle of winter to swim for thirty seconds in their underwear and then drive straight back home, shivering, singing along to awful country songs on El's old car radio. So much of the code Marty used for processing the world-- the numbers and slashes for transcribing baseball games in scorecard boxes, the slanting or adjacent --ing and --ed and --er and --un combinations that signaled opportunity on a Boggle board, the squiggles and dots of trop in Torah portions in prayer books that indicates changes of pitch or chances to make the secret pretend-farting noise with your lips-- he'd learned from El, on those nights. And now his wish had been granted. They were going to spend one more night alone together.
At the other end of Part Two is "The Nimble Men," in which the pilot of a small commuter plane on a nighttime layover in rural Ontario sees lights in the surrounding woods that might be the aurora, or something else. The setting is suitably spooky, but what makes the story stand out is the bond between the narrator and his co-pilot, in which light-hearted (and amusing) banter conceals a deeper admiration that, set against the emotional and physical chill of the milieu, is genuinely affecting rather than soppy.

The remaining Rolling Dark stories are effective, but lack the spark carried by the rest of Hirshberg's work. (I imagine they work evwn better when performed aloud in their original context.) "Miss Ill-Kept Runt" has a child protagonist with realistic psychology, and hides its final revelation well, but isn't substantial enough to achieve the fullest possible impact. "Millwell" is creepy, with another inspired setting, but would likewise be better if it were more thoroughly explored. And "Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey" (marvelous title) is flawlessly executed but has a premise that has become familiar over the past forty years' worth of horror fiction.

Part Three features "The Book Depository Stories," of which so far there are only two. The first, "Esmerelda," closed out the Ash-Tree Press anthology Shades of Darkness and appeared in the first volume of The Best Horror of the Year. The second was due to debut in issue 65 of Cemetery Dance, but that issue was delayed so long that it has only just appeared, simultaneously with The Janus Tree. The concept for the series, born of these photographs of a derelict warehouse of school supplies (more information here), is ingenious: as the physical book declines, depositories of dumped volumes appear all over the country, and people-- bibliophiles, urban explorers, the homeless and directionless-- take to visiting them, wandering rooms full of worn, moldy, and forgotten titles.
The Roosevelt, Michigan warehouse, where the books sprout mushrooms from their ruined pages and the hills of still-shrinkwrapped texts and composition notebooks rise shoulder high and higher, a mountain range of waste paper complete with alpine meadows of pink and green binders and waterfalls of paperclips and liquid paper bottles. Miles and miles of them. There's even weather; the rot and damp create a haze that rises from the ground on warmer nights and drifts about the giant, echoing space, as though the words themselves have lifted right off the pages like little Loraxes and floated toward the window sockets to dissipate over the abandoned thoroughfares of the Motor City.
But however appealing in their gothic way, the book depositories aren't safe. These are stories about the power of books and the imagination, and not in the stale, self-congratulatory way you might expect. These abandoned books are dangerous, and the characters who run afoul of them are among Hirshberg's most damaged and driven, living on the edge of insanity in a world that invites such excess, a world that these two stories can only begin to reveal. As impressive as Hirshberg's work to date has been, the book depository series could easily prove to be this author's magnum opus. And coming at the end of this extraordinary collection, an initial taste of it provides an ideal capstone to The Janus Tree's demonstration of the versatility of one of the first great talents in 21st century horror fiction.

The Janus Tree and Other Stories is available from Subterranean Press.

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