Anatomy of a Weird Tale–Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter”

The following is a re-posting of a piece that first appeared on the Macabre Republic blog back in 2010 (a forewarning: plot spoilers abound below, so do not continue reading if you have not already had the joy of experiencing this weird tale firsthand).

Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter” has been overshadowed by the author’s other Halloween novella, “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” (both are collected in The Two Sams: Ghost Stories), but actually might be the stronger of the pair of marvelous tales. Hirshberg builds suspense from the opening lines, as the teenage narrator Andrew recounts: “This was before we knew about Peter, or at least before we understood what we knew” (3). Immediately the reader wonders what Andrew’s precocious and mischievous friend has done, and why Andrew’s mother is now sitting “clutching her knees and crying in the television light.” Some terrible tragedy seems to have transpired.

Following this first, framing paragraph, Andrew flashes back to a few years earlier when he was twelve. He notes his after-school treks to the park with Peter Andersz that led them bustling past “the splintering, sagging blue walls of the Black Anchor Restaurant where Mr. Paars used to hunker alone and murmuring over his plates of reeking lutefisk when he wasn’t stalking Market Street, knocking pigeons and homeless people out of the way with his dog-head cane.” Coming at the end of a long sentence that lists several other landmarks on the route, this information about the restaurant and its diner might at first seem like merely incidental detail, yet ultimately Mr. Paars will prove integral to the story. Indeed, Hirshberg is quite adept at dropping hints while holding full revelation in abeyance. For instance, Andrew’s narrative focuses on a few Halloweens earlier, his “last night at the Andersz house” (6)–an admission that begs the question: did Andrew and Peter simply drift apart afterwards, or did something momentous happen on that Halloween night? Similarly, Andrew points out that his mother hadn’t even wanted him to go out that night: “Not with Peter. Not after last year” (6). The tantalized reader has to wait several pages before the detail about the prior  Halloween is filled in by Andrew, in defense of his clique’s misbehavior: “We hadn’t known anyone was hiding in those bushes when we toilet-papered them, and Peter meant to light his cigarette, not the roll of toilet paper” (13).

Hirshberg reels his readers in not just by crafting suspense but by creating a strong sense of setting. The dreary neighborhood of Ballard in Washington state is realized through skillful patches of description, such as Andrew’s explanation for why trick-or-treating isn’t that popular in his town: “Too wet and dismal, most years, and there were too many drunks lurking around places like the Black Anchor and sometimes stumbling down the duplexes, shouting curses at the dripping trees” (7). As Andrew, Peter, and their friends Jenny and Kelly Mack traverse the scene, black birds sit perched in the tree branches, “silent as gargoyles” (16); the canal’s water “swallow[s] the last streak of daylight like some monstrous whale gulping plankton”; and “seagulls dip[ ] and tumble[ ] on the wind like shreds of cloud that had been ripped loose” (17). At times the images and similes seem almost too masterful for a narrator supposedly in his mid-teens, but Hirshberg’s own mesmerizing prose makes such ostensible lapse from verisimilitude easy to ignore.

There’s also a discernibly oral quality to the narrative (as a schoolteacher, Hirshberg would entertain his students with recitations of his Halloween tales). When Andrew, with some editorializing from Peter, recounts “the night of the bell” (15) to the Mack sisters, he even admits to feeling “like a longshoreman, a lighthouse keeper, someone with stories who lived by the sea” (15). Andrew tells of a run-in he and Peter had with Mr. Paars on Halloween night two years earlier when they followed the cranky old man home from the Black Anchor. They discovered a strange gazebo on Paars’s property, containing “this giant white bell, like church bell, hanging from the ceiling on a chain.  And all the lights in the yard were aimed at it” (18). The lawn, meanwhile, had been scored with a weird, eye-like symbol, “a circle, with this upside-down triangle inside it” (19). Then, as Peter ventured towards the gazebo, “one of those dwarf trees [springing from Paars’s land] walked right off its roots into his path, and both of us started screaming” (22). It was no tree, of course, but Paars himself, who knocked Peter down with his cane and then smilingly informed the boys: “That bell raises the dead. Right up out of the ground” (23).

Andrew and Peter have seen little of Mr. Paars in the two years since that incident, but now Peter aims to lead his group of friends to the house for a belated return visit. When the quartet arrives, they spy an ominous domicile: “The house, like the [neighboring] sheds, seemed to have sunk sideways into the ground. With its filthy windows and rotting planks, it looked like the abandoned hull of a beached ship” (26). The front door is ajar, the furniture inside has been covered with ghostly white sheets, the windows have been thrown open and “[l]eaves chased each other across the dirt-crusted hardwood floor” (27). Hirshberg’s novella transcends a cliched premise (Halloween-night exploration of the town curmudgeon’s spooky home) through the inclusion of some genuinely eerie detail. Crossing into “what must have been Mr. Paars’s den,” Andrew and Jenny discover a huge desk topped with six framed pictures arranged in a semicircle:

Somehow, the fact that two of the frames turned out to be empty made the array even more unsettling. The other four held individual pictures of what had to be brothers and one sister–they all had flying white hair, icy blue eyes–standing, each in turn, on the top step of the gazebo outside, with the great bell looming behind them, bright white and all out of proportion, like the Mountain [Rainier] on a clear day. (28)

A second significant aspect of this exploration scene is Hirshberg’s crafty use of misdirection. Before stepping inside the house, Andrew spots a “flicker in the upstairs window. Maybe” (25). Then, once inside: “From under the half-closed door at the top of the staircase–the only door we could see from where we were–came a sudden slash of light that disappeared instantly like a snake’s tongue flashing in and out” (30). The flickering light proves to have come from an innocuous source (a nearby lighthouse that is illuminated each Halloween), but no sooner is this fact established than a soft tap of the bell in the yard is heard. Andrew and Peter figure the Mack sisters are just trying to scare them. Heading back downstairs, Andrew finds Kelly’s baseball cap lying in the middle of the foyer floor, and the front door swings inward to reveal a spray-painted rendition of the lawn hieroglyph. While gaping at it, Andrew suddenly feels a hand clamped across his mouth, but his seeming attacker turns out to be none other than Peter’s father. Mr. Andersz had followed the group of children out that night, and seeing where they headed, decided to seize an opportunity to scare his prankster son straight  (“To reach out. Reach him. Someone’s got to do something. He’s a good boy. He could be” [35]).

Mr. Andersz–sneaking up behind Peter, when he comes downstairs, and whispering “Boo”–succeeds in giving his son quite a scare. Peter bolts right out of the house and is fifteen feet away before he realizes he’s been had. His father explains that Mr. Paars had been very sick and had in fact died a week earlier, prompting Peter (eager to reassert his moxie) to declare, “Then he won’t mind […] if I go ahead and ring that bell” (38). Peter does just that, and in the climactic moment of the novella, Andrew (still standing on the front porch with his back to the house) sees his companions’ eyes goggle before everyone turns and flees. He hears a “single sharp thud from the porch behind me. Wood hitting wood. Cane-into-wood” (40). A second thump follows, spurring Andrew to tear off after his friends like the proverbial bat out of hell.

Back at the Andersz house later that night, the laughing group reminisces about the scare they received. Mr. Andersz explains that the figure who appeared on the porch was Mr. Paars’s brother (“He must have been inside when you all got there. He must have thought you were coming to rob the place, or vandalize it, and he went out back”). The brother had come to close down the house after Mr. Paars’s death; also, the reason the house’s windows had all been open was because Paars had been lying dead inside for days before being discovered and the place needed to be aired out.  It all seems like a nice, neat Scooby-Doo-type wrap-up, until Andrew relates: “I sat, and I sipped my cocoa, and I watched my friends chatter and eat and laugh and wave their arms around, and it dawned on me, slowly, that none of them had seen. None of them had heard. Not really” (41).  Andrew almost speaks up, but refrains, not wanting to spoil the fun on the Halloween evening. He also holds back, momentarily, from the reader what exactly he experienced in his final moments at the Paars place.

First, the narrative flashes back to the present, to Andrew and his mother seated before the TV. Peter has been arrested after going on a killing spree at school.  Watching the “live reports from the rubble of our school,” Andrew thinks back to Peter’s reaction to the prank played on him that night years earlier, and how Peter’s whole body “vibrat[ed] like an imploding building after the charge has gone off, right at the moment of collapse” (37). Andrew has always sensed a certain danger emanating from Peter, an emotional disturbance and potential volatility, and now that has manifested in an act of spectacular violence. Here, too, at novella’s end, one sees just how cleverly Hirshberg has riffed on the traditional story of Struwwelpeter. On the night back out at the Paars house, Jenny asks Andrew why Mr. Andersz called his son “Struwwelpeter” whenever Peter misbehaved, and Andrew explains that the name comes from “some kids’ book […] about a boy who got in trouble because he wouldn’t cut his hair or nails. […My mom] said Struwwelpeter looked like Freddy Krueger with a ‘fro” (29). Overhearing the conversation, Peter adds that Struwwelpeter was what his mom dubbed him when he was little: “When I kicked the shit out of barbers, because I hated having my haircut. Then when I was just being bad. She’d say that instead of screaming at me. It made me cry.” From such statement, one senses that the now-motherless Peter bears some serious emotional scars. The traditionally unpopular (because of his unkempt appearance) Struwwelpeter is thus updated as the maladjusted, alienated teen Peter. Also, in the various episodes of Struwwelpeter, the morally-conservative German book for children, wayward kids receive ironic comeuppance for their misdeeds, but here Hirshberg gives a wicked twist to such a plot dynamic. In the novella’s final turn of the screw, Andrew plans to sneak out of his house and go ring the bell in the gazebo: “And then we’ll know, once and for all, whether I really did see two old men with matching canes on the porch of the Paars house when I glanced back, right as I fled into the woods. Whether I really did hear rustling from all those sideways sheds as I flew past, as though, in each something was sliding out of the ground. I wonder if the bell only works on the Paars family, or if it affects any recently deceased in the vicinity” (42). Then, in one hell of a clincher, Andrew states: “And if [the dead] do come back–and if they’re angry, and they go looking for Peter, and they find him–well. Let the poor, brilliant, fucked-up bastard get what he deserves.”

“Struwwelpeter” is a wonderfully written, expertly paced ghost story that haunts not just with its supernatural aura but with its depiction of childhood angst. The novella should be required reading for any connoisseur of the weird tale–and every lover of Halloween scares.

WORK CITED

Hirshberg, Glen.  “Struwwelpeter.”  2001.  The Two Sams.  New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003.  3-42.