The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

“Struwwelpeter” by Glen Hirshberg: An Appreciation by Nathan Ballingrud

The original "Struwwelpeter" is a poem by the nineteenth century German writer Heinrich Hoffmann. It is one of a series of cautionary verses meant to frighten children into proper behavior; other titles in the collection include "The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches," in which a young girl plays with matches and is burned to death, and "The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb," a particularly frightening poem about the "tall tailor" who comes to slice off the thumbs of little children who cannot keep them out of their mouths. "Struwwelpeter" is actually one of the mildest poems in the collection. It's about a boy with terrible hygiene: he refuses to wash his face or comb his hair, and his nails grow to grotesque lengths. He is an awful little boy, we are told, and everybody hates him. Little basis, it would seem, for a ghost story.

And so we come to Glen Hirshberg's "Struwwelpeter." It's about an awful boy, too, but it's easy to get distracted from that by the wonderful creepiness of the setting. There are many elements of the traditional ghost story to be found here: a windy Halloween night; a haunted house; a disagreeable old man who surrounds himself with strange symbols and objects, who speaks darkly of raising the dead. The story is laden with images all ghost story aficionados are familiar with: mysterious, half-glimpsed lights; a stray article of clothing lying, abandoned, in an empty room where a person ought to be; the doomful tolling of a bell. We become so caught up in the spooky trappings of the tale that we run the risk of forgetting the title, and the title's heritage. Hirshberg is intimately familiar with the tropes of the ghost story, and uses them here to brilliant effect. Like Shirley Jackson, he only drops suggestions, letting the reader's imagination do the heavy lifting. And while we are occupied with the immediate threat of the haunted house, the real story is uncoiling underneath, infinitely more dangerous. Because this story, like all of Hirshberg's stories, is about human pain. How it manifests, and how it steers us.

Here's the opening paragraph:

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, as she sits there clutching her knees and crying in the television light.

It is a wonderfully complete paragraph. We are presented with a mystery, and the engine of the plot: this Peter, and the thing about him which everyone should have known, but didn't. To me, though, the strength of this paragraph--and its principal beauty--comes from that last image: "as she sits there clutching her knees and crying in the television light." It's one of the most powerful, most economically precise depictions of loneliness and despair that I've read in a long time. It just about breaks your heart. And it sets the mood for this story perfectly.

This is a story about isolation, alienation, the hope of fathers and the trust between friends. Like Hoffmann's "Struwwelpeter," it is a story of the despised boy. The supernatural trappings are window dressing for the real horror at its heart. Horror writers should read it, along with other stories by Hirshberg (particularly "The Two Sams"), and learn from him. This is the scary stuff.

I can't end this, though, without calling further attention to the language. There's so much joy to be found on the sentence level alone. Take, for example:

We wandered toward the locks, into the park. The avenue between the pine trees was empty except for a scatter of solitary bums on benches, wrapping themselves in shredded jackets and newspapers as the night nailed itself down and the dark billowed around us in the gusts of wind like the sides of a tent. In the roiling trees, black birds perched on the branches, silent as gargoyles.

If that doesn't do it for you, I just don't know what you're doing here.

Link to story.


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