It may seem an odd subject to want to amass titles, but for some, the quirkiness and oddities that circus sideshows and carnivals provide are fascinating subjects. I began to indulge in collecting any mystery that had a smidgen of sideshow or carny theme, and have progressed to purchasing non crime fiction too. Sideshows are considered politically incorrect in this day and age. People think that displaying individuals with physical deformities is demeaning and exploitive. Perhaps it is, for some. But for many of the performers of yesteryear who graced the tents and circus midways, the money and notoriety was a welcome thing, the alternative to being shut away in some institution or hidden in the attic of a family home. The original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng, made quite a tidy sum of cash during their lifetimes, and reproduced to the point where practically an entire cemetery in rural North Carolina is full of their descendants. Fat Ladies, bearded Ladies, midgets, conjoined twins, elastic men, pinheads, used their differences to support themselves, and looked at us rubes as the suckers who paid to see them. The joke is on us. I’ve been to many sideshows, or what are called that today, I assume they are a weak imitation of the original concept. The last of the hammerheads is still thriving, pounding nails up his nose at whim.
Most of the books with these subjects within have been published in the past, or are written within a historical context. One exception is the sly, witty work of Joe R. Lansdale, Freezer Burn. Hapless one armed robber Bill Roberts stumbles upon a cut-rate freak show, the main attraction being a
ethereal frozen man whose demeanor can only be seen by blowing the ice away from the container. The figure is nameless, and could be anyone. The story is a carnival within itself. A wild ride. Most famous of the sideshow titles is Nightmare Alley written by a man who lived the life, William Lindsay Gresham. “This is not a nice book” warns the opening line of the jacket blurb. The protagonist is an anti-hero, a carny worker with big ideas, who climbs the social strata by stepping on others along the way. How he falls, and to what extreme, is the shocker of the book. Fredric Brown has many short stories with the carnival theme, and one novel, The Dead Ringer, 1943, takes place entirely within a traveling show. Clayton Rawson, who wrote a minuscule amount of titles, puts his magician detective on the case of The Headless Lady–that being a famous carnival trick. And fantasy writer, Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece, A Wicked Thing This Way Comes conveys the feeling kids had when something as exciting as a traveling show would hit the boonie town they resided in. The master horror writer, Stephen King just published Joyland, a book with definite carny overtones, although it takes place in the 1970s at an old fashioned amusement park, the owner is a veteran of the road and teaches the college kid workers the lingo and expectations that a traveling carny would entail.
When first compiling a list of my collection, I had only 17 titles. I’ve since added books such as Water For Elephants, The Circus in Winter (a collection of short fiction revolving around a small Ohio town where a famous circus set down in the colder months), Step Right Up: Stories of Carnivals, Sideshows, and the Circus by Nathaniel Knaebela, (also short stories) and a few science fiction and fantasy titles. I found several original paperbacks with lurid titles and covers that take place within a carnival, and some hard cover romances where the leading lady joins a traveling carny, much to the horror of her home town. One book I recently read, Step Right Up, 1951, is brutal in violence and character. The main protagonist is attracted to the wife of the carny owner, a freak with perfect face and body, but hands like a fish. He is repelled by his attraction, and finds himself embroiled in murder. Not a crime fiction title, it expounds more upon what is considered ‘normal’ in our world. There are non fiction titles worthy of my collection as well, and one I am reading now is The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards, by master magician, Jim Steinmeyer. The bio of this forgotten magician catalogs his rise from wandering carnys to becoming the best magician of his time. A slim volume of how to beat the carny games at fairs and amusement parks was written by an insider. The bottle toss cannot not be won, period, according to the expert. And, of course, there are the expose like volumes of photos of freaks and sideshow performers–I tend not to purchase anything that is clearly meant as demeaning in content.
My collection has first editions in jacket, to used paperbacks of no intrinsic value. In this area, I’m not concerned with pedigree, much like carnivals themselves. I collect what I consider to be within the genre and have my own standards as to what that consists of. If a book has the circus as it’s focus, it must have enough sideshow activity to qualify for a place. Local church carnivals qualify, if the action within touches on the carnival life. One paperback original with a local town event, Sex and Salmonella by Kathleen Taylor, fits perfectly. Even amusement park titles can work, if the midway is run like an old carny. One such book is Carny Kill 1965. The setting is a smaller Disney like place that an old veteran of carnys is disgusted by the clean cut atmosphere that pervades the park.
It surprises me how many books I continue to unearth with my specific theme. However, unless more authors such as Mr King write nostalgic stories of the carny life, there will be a definite limit to my collection. Until then, the hunt is on.