Elizabeth Hand fan? You betcha. Hand’s Cass Neary novels are cherished titles, shelved face-out in my bookcases beside Sara Gran’s Dope and a handful of other favorites. (And overdue for a re-read, I think.) Her former 1970’s NYC punk scene photographer character has been referred to as “one of literature’s great noir anti-heroes”, and I won’t argue with that claim. Perhaps the only books from this award-winning author (three-time Shirley Jackson Award winner, four-time World Fantasy Award winner, two-time Nebula Award winner along with James M. Triptree and Mythopoeic Society awards) that I’ve skipped have been some of her media tie-in projects. Star Wars novels and movie adaptations aren’t my thing, but I respect accomplished writers with pragmatic attitudes who know how to make a buck in order to fund their more personal projects.
Hands’ current Curious Toys is a peculiar and unsettling book. Just as clowns can be the scariest of monsters, amusement parks make for creepy settings, and here Hand takes us back to Chicago in 1915 and the enormous in-city Riverview amusement park (torn down in 1967). There fourteen-year old Pin, who shares a tarpaper shack with her mother — a Riverview fortune teller and part-time dance instructor — masquerades as a boy while coming to grips with her own emerging attraction for girls. But Pin finds herself on the trail of a twisted serial killer targeting young girls in Riverview, his crime spree possibly covering big city amusement parks over years. While Pin runs wild in North side Chicago alleys and Riverview’s attractions, running errands for pocket change (i.e. food) like delivering drugs to nearby Essanay film studios, she gets mixed up with the real-life outcast artist Henry Darger, who devoted his life to composing a sprawling 15,000+ page illustrated epic posthumously published after his death in 1973. Is Darger the murderer, or the only one who seems to know who the real killer is? Meanwhile, other historical figures like Charlie Chaplin and journalist Ben Hecht appear. Advance reading about Hands’ forthcoming book had me wondering if the historical setting (Chicago locale aside) and a child killer were my kind of thing, but I should have known Elizabeth Hand would engage me from the first few pages. Earlier I called it ‘unsettling’, and that’s precisely what it is. Curious Toys is rich in historical detail, effectively capturing an unusual time and place. But it’s an eerie read, and the real-life Henry Darger as well Hand’s memorable Pin will linger with you long after you’ve finished the novel.
Riverview Amusement Park, Chicago