I first read Katherine Dunn's 1989 novel Geek Love several years ago on the recommendation of my friend Robin. At that point, she still lived in Arkansas, and I'd just come through on tour with a heavy metal band from Georgia. She insisted I give it a chance, ignoring my insistence that I don't usually read fiction. Her plot synopsis sold me; after all, I was born with ectrodactyly and have always been drawn to stories about fellow physically abnormal folk. As usual, Robin was right, something I discovered very quickly as I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the riotous world of the Binewskis. Mile after mile, truck stop after truck stop, I fell in love with, then recoiled in horror from, the characters rendered so lavishly within its pages.
Geek Love follows the twisting, turning saga of the Binewskis, a family of circus folk whose extravagantly mustachioed patriarch Aloysius "Al" Binewski and his flaxen-haired wife "Crystal" Lil hatched a plan to create their very own brood of freaks to revitalize their failing Fabulon show. By dint of drugs and radioactive materials, Lil eventually gave birth to four surviving children: Arturo ("Arty"), a boy born with flippers instead of limbs; Olympia ("Oly"), a hunchbacked albino dwarf who also serves as the story's narrator; Electra ("Elly") and Iphigenia ("Iphy"), a pair of violet-eyed conjoined twins; and finally, Fortunato, known as Chick, the normal-looking son whose telekinetic powers proved to be the most dangerously freakish of all. Dunn's writing is lyrical and earthy, and crackles with energy; her characters are so flawed, so human, that you're left wondering who you're actually meant to root for. It's full of richly-pigmented vignettes—the consuming adoration Oly has for her brother (with its whispered implications of incest), the mutilated horse, Lil singing to the jars full of failed "experiments," Elly's death and resurrection, the hollows under Chick's eyes. They bleed into a grand, horrifying portrait of a family that is irredeemably broken, yet clings together with an animal ferocity until the bitter, bitter end.
One of the book's most thought-provoking aspects is its portrayal of just how much the Binewskis value their oddities. They relish their freak status, looking down upon the poor normals, with their boring limbs and boring lives. They despise normality so much that any child born without physical abnormalities is regarded as a failure. When Fortunato was born, his parents were all set to abandon their "normal" son and haul ass down the highway until, at the eleventh hour, his telekinetic powers made a spectacular entrance.
It's a direct contrast with the attitude found in what may end up being the next big hallmark in the history of the freak show in American pop culture: FX's newest entry in the American Horror Story series. In American Horror Story: Freak Show, the performers in Fräulein Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities don't look down upon their neighbors in Jupiter, FL; rather, characters like the handsome "Lobster Boy" Jimmy Darling (played by Evan Peters) show their yearning to be accepted as normal. "We're just like everyone else" is a common refrain, and Darling's frustration at his "freak" status is more than a little heartbreaking. His character is caught between two worlds: his easy charm and good looks appeal to waitresses and scam artists, but his allegiance to his freak show family and his own syndactyly place him firmly in the "other" camp as far as the denizens of buttoned-up Jupiter are concerned. He's good enough to come to town and secretly pleasure frustrated housewives, but he must always leave out the back door once they've gotten their thrill. He's a very sympathetic character; any of us who've landed in the "other" category because of how we were born or how we live have felt the way his character feels more times than we'd like to count.
AHS: FS has done its homework, and I'd be surprised if at least a few of its creators and actors hadn't read Geek Love at some point. There are plenty of parallels. Arty's rise from helpless "Seal Boy" to the fearsome leader of his own cult mirrors Dell the Strongman's arrival as an out-of-luck criminal on the lam and upward move to be the cruel, volatile boss of the whole show. Both of these strong, malicious male presences are plagued by their own inner weaknesses, like Arty's twisted desire for his sister Iphy and Dell's impotence. The sexualization of the conjoined twins became a major plot point in Elly and Iphy's story, and while AHS's Bette and Dot have yet to really explore them, the spectres of love and lust loom large in their relationship with Jimmy.
To go even further back in freak show history, the latest episode features a blatant reference to the classic 1932 horror flick Freaks. In the original version, the freaks gather around a wooden feast table to welcome the new able-bodied but evil-minded wife of the beloved dwarf Hans; they pass a cup of wine around the table chanting, "We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble." The woman recoils, tossing the wine in one of their faces. In "Edward Mordrake, Part 1," the AHS characters mimic this scene almost perfectly, except for their much darker refrain: "Kill-a-copper, kill-a-copper." Jimmy Darling storms out after splashing one of his friends with his own cup. In the same episode, a lovely blonde con artist (Emma Roberts) shows up at the carnival and, without giving away too many plot points, one wonders just how closely AHS: FS plans to follow Freaks' example.
The themes of movement and transience are strong in both Geek Love and AHS: FS. For both troupes, there's always the fear of being run out of town, denied permits, or followed too closely by the police. When they do get to town, their welcome is usually far from warm; no matter how curious townfolk may be about this traveling spectacle, they sure as hell don't want a bunch of "freaks" eating at their lunch counters. In a small way, I can relate. When you're in a crew of tattooed, pierced, long-haired, loud-mouthed and tattered souls driving through rural America and you stop for gas, more often than not, the general reaction from the locals is a bitter cocktail of suspicion, disgust, and curiosity. When you reach out to pay for your Cheetos and the cashier doesn't see the expected number of fingers on your hand, the idle conversation tends to die off. There are plenty of kind hearts tucked away in every corner of this big nation, but after awhile, the stares and whispers get awfully old.
When Geek Love was released on March 11, 1989, it featured a jaunty cover by designer Chip Kidd. The trademark Knopf logo of a Russian Wolfhound was present and accounted for, gamboling across the top on five—wait, what?—five legs, Kidd's sly tribute to the book's contents. Dunn spent ten long, careful years spinning this yarn, and when it was finally published, it enjoyed quite a lot of positive reviews. Publisher's Weekly called it "a brilliant, suspenseful, heartbreaking tour de force," the New York Times Book Review dubbed it "wonderfully descriptive," and the San Francisco Chronicle praised it as "a Fellini movie in ink" (though one New York writer quipped "this is the first book I've ever walked out of").
That same year, the bloody horror movie Freakshow hit theaters. The film slapped together a series of short horror stories styled as the nightmarish visions of a nasty television reporter who has a strange encounter in a museum. From all accounts, it wasn't a very good film, and is only remarkable for its title. In a clumsy way, it seemed to put forward the idea that normal, everyday people are the real freaks, a premise that AHS: FS has built up quite nicely (and emotionally, in regards to what became of poor Meep). This isn't a new idea by a long shot, and it's apparent in Geek Love as well. Maybe the reason that we love books and films and television shows populated by strange or atypical people so much is that we seek ways to identify with them. We want to be on their side. The alternative offered by AHS: FS and Katherine Dunn is too hard to bear. Maybe we cannot tear ourselves away from the kinds of stories that reinforce the idea that real evil lies hidden behind unremarkable features because, deep down, we know they're right.
Kim Kelly is a writer, music journalist, and occasional road dog who has written about music and culture for The Atlantic, Pitchfork, The Guardian, NPR, Spin, Noisey, Wondering Sound, Decibel, and many others. She lives in Brooklyn with an affable Englishman and an imperious cat.
Image via Michele K. Short/FX