Sunday, December 1, 2019

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

I think I’ll remember this year, in book terms anyway, as the year I discovered Elizabeth Hand and George Eliot.* Curious Toys is the fifth of Hand’s books I’ve read, and maybe the best. Though that is picking by degrees from a very good group. Generation Loss really blew me away, but the more I think about Wylding Hall and Waking the Moon, the more I love them. Available Dark is as tense as Generation Loss. Between those first four books Hand showed herself to be a master of genre switching: horror, fantasy, nordic noir. She can do it all. In Curious Toys she adds historical thriller to that already impressive list.

Anyone who has read any of the Cass Neary books, knows that Hand is drawn to outsider art. It’s no surprise then that she would want to write about the artist and writer Henry Darger. I’ve heard bits and pieces about him before, but this is the first time I’ve thought about him in any extended way. Darger worked a day job as a custodian at a hospital and after he died they discovered thousands of pages of a fantasy novel and hundreds of accompanying drawings and watercolors. Darger is a supporting character in this, as is Charlie Chaplin.

The main character, Pin, is a 14 year old girl who goes in disguise as a boy. Her mother has taken a job as a fortune teller at an amusement park in Chicago. She runs errands, delivers drugs for Max, an actor who does one of those acts in which he plays male and female characters by turning opposite profiles. The other main players are her mother, Francis “Fatty” Bacon an ex-cop who works at the park and Glory (Gloria Swanson), an actress she is in love with. Pin moves between the sets of the film industry which is still active in Chicago at the time and the world of the amusement park. She meets Henry Darger when they both witness what the disappearance of a child; Pin later discovers the body.

The book is set roughly 20 years after the HH Holmes murders at the 1890 world fair. Those murders loom over the proceedings as another serial killer active and some of the older cops reflect back to their experiences at the fair. It would be reductive to say this book is a cross between The Devil in the White City and carnivalesque works like Geek Love, Nights at the Circus or Swamplandia, but that is a pretty accurate accounting for the feel of the book. That’s not to say the book is derivative. Hand is far too good a writer for this to be mere copy work.

There is a darkness and bleakness in Hand’s work that I really love. This darkness is most clearly expressed in the Cass Neary books, but is on display here as well; The killer hunts young girls, poisoning them and then dressing a life size doll in their clothes. This has probably moved ahead of Generation Loss, the first Neary book, for me because that bleakness doesn’t quite reach the nihilism that characterizes Neary’s outlook. Curious Toys does not flinch from the darkness, but doesn’t entirely despair either. It is perfectly structured. There are several people who may be the killer and as each is eliminated as a possibility, the tension grows. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the ending is satisfying, but plays fair with the subject matter and attitudes of the time period. To the extent that I know the history of the time, she plays fair with that as well. The prose, as always, is excellent. I loved this book and will be rereading it, I suspect, for years to come.


*And probably as the year Moby Dick (and possibly Peace and Middlemarch as well) passed Pale Fire as my favorite novel. And the one that cemented Caitlin Kiernan, David Mitchell, William Gibson and Donna Tartt among my favorite writers. And I finally looped back around to more Austen and Karen Joy Fowler. And when I discovered Jill Lepore. I’ll remember a lot of bookish things, but Hand and Eliot are high on the list.

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