Glen Hirshberg has distinguished himself as an indisputable master of the American ghost story, but it is neither fair nor quite accurate to label him a writer of genre horror. The very subtitle running across the cover of The Ones Who Are Waving (Hirshberg’s fourth collection, following The Two Sams, American Morons, and The Janus Tree and Other Stories) establishes that there is more at stake than mere shiver-inducing. These are “Tales of the Strange, Sad, and Wondrous.” The classification just as easily could have read “Tales of Exquisite Craftsmanship.”
Hirshberg’s prose is marked by literary style; his plots are rich in nuance. To use a cinematic analogy, his stories are Oscar-season releases rather than summer blockbusters. A perfect illustration of this is the story “Shaken,” which centers on the earthquake (and subsequent tsunami) that devastated Japan in 2011. Godzilla is referenced here, not to mention a native mythological beastie named Namazu, but Hirshberg doesn’t resort to some lumbering, Tokyo-stomping monstrosity for horrific effect. The title captures not just the literal earthquake but also the psychological aftershocks suffered by the elderly protagonist Thomas, who following his unsettling experience in Japan is now terrorized by the thought that terra firma isn’t firm at all (he also grows to shudder at modern American horrors such as 9/11 and the Columbine massacre). As the mentally-listing Thomas frets over the inevitable decimation of human civilization, “Shaken” strikes a haunting note of existential dread.
Admittedly, I was disappointed the first time I read “A Small Part of the Pantomime” (in the 2014 anthology Nightmare Carnival), in large part because this follow-up to Hirshberg’s Halloween classic “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” didn’t delve as directly into the legendary haunted attraction. My appreciation for the sequel, though, has increased exponentially upon rereading. “A Small Part of the Pantomime” creates incredible suspense as it slowly unfolds the story of what happened to David Roemer following the tragic events of “Mr. Dark’s Carnival.” The ghostly elements prove all the more unnerving for not being confined to a spook house, as Hirshberg transforms the grassy plains of eastern Montana into an expansive scene of supernatural menace. In retrospect, “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” and “A Small Part of the Pantomime” form perfect complements to one another; these two stories would combine to make one hell of a movie (imagine a Mike Flanagan adaptation on Netflix!).
The volume also gathers three “Normal and Nadine Adventures”: “Pride,” “His Only Audience,” and “Hexenhaus.” In his introductory note to these works (in which the protagonists travel the country trying to track down esoteric items for clients, only to find themselves in uncanny territory), Hirshberg points out the difficulty of writing “occult detective” fiction: “The beats are different. […] Detective stories are, in the end, about resolution, however complicated or equivocal. and ghost stories are about mystery. […] My solution was to try to create stories that inhabit the chasm between those ideals, rather than bridge it.” At this, Hirshberg succeeds brilliantly. The plots (to get into specifics here would spoil the fun of gradual discovery) don’t just resolve; they resonate. Also, Normal (better known as “The Collector”) and Nadine are not just a couple of Kolchak knock-offs, the Mulder and Scully of the private sector, episodically encountering the Monster of the Week. As a pair of characters, they are at once intriguing and endearing. While each piece is self-contained, there are intimations of a larger backstory (we have more to learn about Normal and Nadine individually, and as a couple). Here’s hoping that Hirshberg scripts further adventures, enough to fill a separate volume someday.
The closing, title story is a metafictional mindf**k that gives a dark fantastic twist to Glen Hirshberg and Peter Atkins’s own experiences with the Rolling Darkness Revue (their touring ghost story troupe). “The Ones Who Are Waving” offers a creepy curse, a surreal climactic reveal, and perhaps best of all, a glimpse behind the curtain of the Rolling Darkness Revue. Those (such as myself) who were always fascinated by the concept but, alas, lived far afield of where the tour stopped every October, get a chance at last to glimpse Hirshberg and Atkins…and then some.
Hirshberg’s narratives are never facile; they take their time to develop (which is not to say they are slow-moving–the reader is propelled by the urge to understand what is actually going on, to discover the wonder or wickedness lying ahead). Nor do they typically present neat moral wrap-up, instead requiring the reader to wrestle with the implications of what has just been recounted. But for anyone willing to put in the work, The Ones Who are Waving pays off as a treasure trove of fine storytelling.