Book Review: Geek Love

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By Katherine Dunn
Publisher: Vintage Contemporaries
Publisher’s Page for the Book

Horror fiction is the hardest of all the horror media for me to keep up with. There’s so much of it, and even more than comics or movies, so much of it is bad.

I know the big names in the field right now, even if I haven’t read much by any of them, and know the big publications, but it’s the rare work of horror fiction and the rare horror fiction writer that moves me to read their work consistently, let alone buy it.

I love books (read five on vacation, in fact, from which two reviews, including this one, will result) and literature, but horror fiction just tends to put me off.

So, I may be a little bit out of the loop in regards to the medium and thus come as no surprise that the first horror novel reviewed on Little Terrors was published over 20 years ago.

It’s the cult hit Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.

Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a hard-working carnival family, and their unusual sideshows of freaks. What makes the sideshow particularly unusual is that the freaks are members of the family.

The Binewski parents, Al and Lil, decide that their best bet for continuing in their family business (Al’s family has run the carnival for years and Lil is the geek – a woman who bites the heads off of live chickens and then drinks their blood) is to create their own sideshow freaks. Thanks to the liberal application of drugs, poison, and radioactive materials to Lil while she’s pregnant, they are able to create four children (who live. Four or five others don’t survive the process, but are preserved in jars and put on display in the sideshow).

There’s Arturo, or Arty, born with flippers instead of proper arms and legs and displayed in a tank of water as the Aqua Boy.

Then come Electra and Iphigenia, conjoined twins who share a gut and lower body, but who have distinct upper bodies and play piano in their act.

Olympia, the hunchbacked, albino dwarf isn’t deemed “unique” enough for her own act, so she helps out in many aspects of the family business.

Lastly, the Chick seems entirely normal, until he begins to manifest remarkable mental powers.

The book’s narrative, as told by Olympia, is split across the past, following the family and its business through its ups and downs, and the present, in which Olympia strives for a protective relationship with her (almost) normal-looking daughter who believes herself to be an orphan.

The bulk of the book is spent in the past, following a bizarre amputation cult that rises up around Arty. With considerable effort and some luck, Arty is able to transform his performances into revivals, sermons, and lectures and he soon gathers a large following across the country.

This new-found power plays into his megalomania and helps him masks his insecurities and fears, and he soon creates a cult out of his adherents, convincing them that slow, gradual amputation, starting with their fingers and toes and continuing to their extremities until they each mirror Arty’s own deformities, is their true means to salvation.

Equipped with his own personal surgeon and the Chick’s amazing powers, Arty conducts his grisly evangelism on hundreds, if not thousands, of followers who travel with the carnival in a huge caravan. Arty’s story is the family’s story, and as he ascends through the consolidation and blunt wieldings of power, the rest of the family fades.

Geek Love calls to mind the cinema of Tod Browning, especially his well-known film Freaks.

A key difference, though, is that in Freaks, the fate of the main character – her multiple amputations and creation as a “freak” – is a punishment. In Geek Love, the Arturans (as the cult members call themselves) submit themselves willing to the mutilations, see it as their freedom, their salvation.

This seems a distinctly late-20th century take on the image of the freak, embracing and inverting it, rather than fearing it outright. It works well, as it allows both the author and reader to experience the “freaks'” humanity, their fears, passions, and joys, but still retains some of the archetypal horror, especially in the fearsome figure of Arturo.

Not all is well in the book, though. Some scenes of remarkable horror – especially the first amputation scene, in which a horse whose rotting feet have been cut off stumbles out of the operating tent – are simply not horrifying enough.

Part of this failed effect is due to Dunn narrating the novel through the eyes of Olympia, who despite being dubbed not as “unique” as her siblings, is very much one of the “freaks.”

Things that might horrify a regular-sized reader likely wouldn’t seem as horrifying to Olympia. After all, she’s been raised in a context in which she’s had to care for the corpses of her dead brothers and sisters and has been told all her life that her parents engineered her and her siblings. Clearly it would take more to horrify her than the average reader.

So while pitching these events to the overall tenor of the book, rather than letting them stand out as sharp, stark terrors, makes internal sense and is smart in terms of narrative and character consistency, it robs the story of some of its impact for those of us on the outside of the circus sideshow.

Ultimately, though, Geek Love is a worthy novel, packed with enough nuanced characters, imaginative verve, and grotesquerie to make a compelling read.

Buy Geek Love at Powell’s

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