American Morons by Glen Hirshberg
[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Glen Hirshberg is one of our modern short story masters. His first collection, The Two Sams, won the International Horror Guild Award for best collection, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award as well. American Morons was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for best collection in 2007. Short horror fiction is difficult to write well, but Hirshberg does it consistently.
Hirshberg is an “edgy” author because his fiction tends to reside in the twilight between fantasy and horror known as dark fantasy. He doesn’t write stories that make you cringe at the splatter, and the Cthulhu Mythos doesn’t play host to his characters. Rather, they all live in a world that is ours, but just a shade off. And who knows but that we might find ourselves living in those shadows one day?
“The Muldoon” is the best story in American Morons; it was nominated for an International Horror Guild Award for best mid-length fiction. It is told from the point of view of Miriam, who, with her elder brother Martin, undertakes some midnight explorations in her step-grandmother’s room on the night following her grandfather’s funeral. The children’s ages are not stated, but they seem to be at that pre-teenage stage of maximum mischief – ten and twelve, perhaps. They begin by exploring the closed rooms of “the hags” – their great-grandmothers, both bedridden as long as the children knew them. Both women were unpleasant in their own ways – “mean,” the children say. Exploring a room where an old woman died is scary enough, but finding the belongings of their dead relatives is even spookier. Worse yet are the discoveries yet to come about exactly how those two women died. “The Muldoon” is a wonderful story about family, and especially about a family in extremity.
“Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air” is about a carousel. The question posed by the story is where the carousel is and how much it encompasses – and how you get off. How much power did the maker of those last beautiful horses have? What magic did he wield over the three characters who brave a ride? It’s an odd, almost surreal story.
I also loved “Safety Clowns,” about a young man’s first day selling ice cream from a truck along with a more experienced driver who has been recruited to show him the ropes. “The ropes” are a whole lot trickier than Max, the first person narrator, thought they were going to be, and pose some serious ethical dilemmas. Not all the ice cream being sold from those trucks is the kind made with milk and sugar. But being a drug pusher seems like not such a big deal, not when everyone seems so happy and the driver knows everyone – and the cash rolls in. At the end of the day, Max can see that he’s got a serious choice to make. But lucky Max: fate steps in. What makes this story eerie is the mechanism that fate uses. It’s not surprising to learn from Hirshberg’s notes that this story has some basis in fact, because the details add such realism that the frisson of horror on which the story ends feels completely authentic.
“American Morons” is about a couple of Americans in Italy who get stranded on a highway when they fail to put diesel into the gas tank of their rented car, using regular gas instead. They choose to trust in the kindness of strangers, even in an era when Americans are not particularly well-regarded abroad (indeed, they even claim to be Canadian for a time). As the story closes, one is forced to conclude that their trust was misplaced.
“It’s better to die horribly than live horribly, given a choice. Don’t you think?” asks the owner of a book-crammed bed and breakfast hotel of Nagle, the protagonist of “Like a Lily in a Flood.” Nagle has been coming to this particular B&B for years now, but he’s never before seen the journals that his hostess reads to him one night. The journals tell the tale of a doomsday cult that was disappointed when doomsday didn’t arrive on schedule in the middle of the 19th century. What do the cult members do as a result, and to whom? On whom do they wreak revenge; and those who were the victims of their revenge, on whom do they wreak revenge? This dark story reminds us that history isn’t dead – and it isn’t even over.
“Devil’s Smile” is an oddly beautiful, though horrifying, tale of a love that doesn’t die. Despite its terrifying denouement, it stays in the memory as a story of faith and endurance. “Transitway” is similar in tone, with an elegiac quality that makes death seem ugly and horrific but also peaceful. How can Hirschberg make a hideous, loud, horrible death seem so authentic?
On the strength of these stories, I’ll be tracking down and reading everything Hirschberg has written to date, and I’ll greet every new story with joy.
Sounds great, Terry! Thanks!
Your intriguing descriptions make me want to run right out and get this book. You are converting me to a short-story reader.
And that’s a debt I owe to John Kessel, who got me reading short SF/F/H about ten years ago. Great stuff in those short stories, isn’t there?