(The Two Sams; Halloween ed. Paula Guran)
This was before we knew about Peter, or at least before we understood what we knew, and my mother says it’s impossible to know a thing like that anyway. She’s wrong, though, and she doesn’t need me to tell her she is, either. (first paragraph)
On the last Halloween night shared by four kids, all around 12-years-old, Kelly and Jenny, sisters, Peter and Andrew, our narrator, the fissures between them, already appearing, begin to widen. Peter holds a fascination for the others – “He was like a planet we visited, cold and rocky and probably lifeless, and we kept coming because it was all so strange, so different than what we knew” – as well as for his father, who sometimes calls him Struwwelpeter. Peter is smart, calculating, daring, and fearless, especially in the face of challenges and opposition. On this night, Peter leads them to a house he and Andrew had found two years earlier, before they met the girls, a house in the yard of which the grass is cut in the pattern of a circle in which there is a triangle, a house with a gazebo from the ceiling of which hangs a huge white bell, a bell an old man told them could raise the dead.
The horror story presents its writer with an aesthetic challenge: How do you lend a story immediacy without falling into the silly or overblown? For instance one of the most frequent tactics used to parody Lovecraft, is high-lighting the silliness of an ending he used a couple of times – and his imitators overused – in which the narrator continues to jot down description of the ravenous indescribable slouching toward him with intent to nosh: “… it’s through the door, sliding across the carpet! Oh, the noxious vision of gloom! … It’s got my leg! … It’s … aaaaaaaa “. But most ways of writing a story have limitations: Past tense often implies the threat is past; present tense can fall into a similar trap to the example above, the appearance of the narrator scribbling or typing away at the height of the action or awkward exposition in ducking that appearance; first person implies the narrator survived which may handicap suspense. In this case Hirshberg chose first person narration, past tense, and it works because “Struwwelpeter” examines memory and knowledge and guilt. Andrew relates his memories of Peter, what he already knew about Peter, and in the process raises the question of what we know and if we should be accountable for what we know: Can you guess the actions a person will take as an adult from the child you knew? There are things you think and things you suppose, but can you be sure until the person’s actions confirm those thoughts and suspicions? And if you haven’t spoken, are you an accessory? Can you be guilty for not extrapolating from what you saw? Or, more accurately, for not acting on what you extrapolated? This is what Andrew lives with.
“Struwwelpeter,” according to Paula Guran, comes from an old book for children, a book I suspect is rather like the book in “The Game of Bear” by M. R. James and Reggie Oliver, in which the stories and illustrations exaggerate the consequences of misbehavior so severely as to be horrific; Struwwelpeter doesn’t cut his hair or nails and so no one likes him.
Other fine stories by Glen Hirshberg: The Two Sams (story collection); “Shomer” (The Best Horror of the Year, vol. 3 ed. Ellen Datlow); “The Nimble Men” (The Best Horror of the Year, vol. 2 ed. Ellen Datlow)
Other thoughtful, sad horror stories: “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner (Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner; Collected Stories; Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural ed. Herbert Wise & Phyllis Fraser); “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken (The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken; Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural ed. Herbert Wise & Phyllis Fraser); “Angels in Love” by Kathe Koja (Extremities; The Weird ed. Jeff and Ann Vandermeer); “The Paperhanger” by William Gay (I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down); “The Box” by Jack Ketchum (Peaceable Kingdom; Stranger ed. Michele Slung)