Freak shows first began to come into the public eye as early as the 16th century, when people with unusual, deformed, or extreme body types would be displayed for royalty as objects of curiosity and medical intrigue. The tradition of the freak show continued to centuries, and they became a staple of traveling circuses, offering guests a “side show” when they were walking up the midway on their way to main big top. Conjoined twins, people with hypertrichosis, those with unusual and rare skin conditions, individuals with third legs, and women with beards became common, and some even became celebrities; most of us know about Chang and Eng Bunker (1811-1864), the first “Siamese Twins,” or the dark saga of “Lobster Boy” Grady Stiles (1937-1992).
Modern audiences have — perhaps rightly — seen the dark exploitative aspects of the old-world freak show, and the tradition now only continues in the form of extreme performances rather than human oddities, à la The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow and other like acts. Despite this, many modern audience are still drawn back to this weird time in entertainment history, and freak shows are a source of any number of fascinating horror fictions. It was the subject of the short-lived CARNIVÀLE, it was the setting of a notable episode of THE X-FILES, and the entire fourth season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY was about a freak show.
And, perhaps best of the lost, was Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel GEEK LOVE (originally published in chapters throughout the 1980s in several book reviews), one of the most unsettling novels ever written about a freak show. It’s also one of the most astonishing. Eschewing the usual documentary approach to a behind-the-scenes analysis of a freak show, GEEK LOVE stages the freak show like a Gothic horror story about cults, clashing egos, crumbling families, and the insidious way a self-exploiting family of amoral freaks can, perhaps unintentionally, erode the souls of those who are in it.
GEEK LOVE is narrated by a character named Olympia Binewski as she recalls the early days of traveling in a circus with her family. Olympia is an albino hunchback dwarf, and was always considered the runt of her family, her handicaps not considered to be as bankable as her more spectacularly mutated siblings. Her parents, you see, deliberately exposed their unborn children to chemicals and radiation, hoping they would be damaged or mutated upon birth, giving them, in their parents’ eyes, an automatic line of work.
Aloysius and Lil, the parents, raised four children in the circus. The eldest was Arturo, a cocky and mean-spirited young boy with flippers for arms and legs. He was so well-spoken and popular an attraction, he began to give pep talks along with his water-based performances. It wasn’t long before he had regulars. Then followers. Then, over the course of the novel, an entire functioning cult. Then there’s Electra and Iphigenia, the conjoined twin sisters who share a pair of legs. Like Daisy and Violet Hilton, they were well known as performers, but to retain their popularity under their more famous brother, and very much unlike the Hiltons eventually were forced to turn to prostitution.
The youngest of the family was Chick, a perfectly normal-looking young boy who, as an infant, revealed he had telekinetic powers. “He moves things,” they say. At an early age, Chick was taught to pick pockets, and then eventually became a skilled surgeon, severing limbs with his mind. This comes in handy when Arturo’s cult begins to skew toward required self-mutilation from its followers. You cannot find peace, he argues, until you too are bodily disfigured.
While this setting and these characters all seems very extreme sensationalist, Dunn infuses her novel with a gentle calm and overwhelming melancholy. The images are, of course, rococo and seem lifted very much from the theatrical traditions of Grand Guignol, but Dunn has more than shock on her mind. She seems to be exploring how a disconnect from the world — and a philosophy of isolation and self-exceptionalism — can lead to moral stagnation and outright sociopathy. It’s not their mutations that make the Binewskis behave like monsters. It’s a carefully constructed and carefully nurtured philosophy of triumph, “winner-ism,” and self-importance. It’s about a childhood of aggressive emotions and domination, and how, perhaps by being quiet and ignored, we can slip the surly bindings of familial oppression.
The action in GEEK LOVE is recalled from the present day, wherein Olympia has found a career as a well-regarded-but-not-famous voice-over artist. She is trying to connect with her estranged daughter — a young woman who doesn’t know Olympia is her mother, and who works at a strip club where she regularly shows off her small tail as a fetish object. We also see the fate of Olympia’s own mother, and how much damage her old life has done to her.
There is also an intriguing sub-plot set in the present which may reveal the true intent of the novel. A steely millionaire named Mary Lick has been pursuing Olympia’s young daughter to volunteer to have her tail severed. We eventually learn that Lick has a made it a practice of hiring models and pretty women to get disfiguring surgeries in order to escape their fate as sex objects, thereby realizing other talents they wouldn’t explore as “attractive” people. Lick’s own obsessions and pathologies will be explored. Needless to say, her intent may not be entirely healthy.
The way the novel equates extreme beauty with extreme disfigurement is telling. Although only nominally explored, GEEK LOVE is very much about the politics of attractiveness, and how extreme bodies can be considered grotesque on both ends of the spectrum. This politic, however, is wrapped in a dark, stylized saga of abuse and corruption as potent as, well, any tale of domestic violence.
GEEK LOVE may be one of those rare novels that will forever remain unfilmable. For one, its subject matter is tetchy and difficult, and modern filmgoers would not necessarily be able to easily jibe with the CGI freaks that would be required to make this into a feature film. At best, one might picture a staggeringly great NC-17-rated cult movie achieved through stop-motion animation. While I would be first in line for such a thing, I imagine a mainstream audience would perhaps stay away.
Luckily, the book is readily available, and has even been nominally popular. It’s been deeply loved by those who have encountered it, and it has even been adapted for the stage. Dunn, meanwhile, had gone onto two other books, including a book of crime photography (which is not for the faint of heart), and an extended essay on boxing, a sport she wrote about frequently. She was also a radio personality unto herself, and has been open in interviews about her past on the road. Dunn died of lung cancer in 2016.
The brave should certainly check out GEEK LOVE. It’s an unusual animal to be sure, and will certainly please the sensibilities of those who like to dabble in the fringe. It’s rich, morally complex, and features brave and unique images. It’s one of the best novels you may encounter on freak shows.