Hell Gate’s ominous white pavilion looked more like a church than a ride: a church with an enormous red devil perched on the roof… The devil was plaster and lath, but Pin’s mother still crossed herself every time she walked past.
A little late but fit for the season: this novel, released last year by much-lauded, cross-genre writer Elizabeth Hand manages to be a mystery, a postcard to Chicago’s long-gone Riverview Park, a tribute to outsider artist and writer Henry Darger, a coming-of-age story, and a tour of hell. If you don’t know Hand’s work, she has published fourteen novels, and won Nebula, World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson, and International Horror Guild Awards. She’s also written several licensed works for the Star Wars, X-Files, Twelve Monkeys, and other franchises.
Trigger warnings: if you’re worried about trigger warnings, why would you read anything that might be considered horror? The mystery centers on a molester and killer of young girls.
Title: Curious Toys
Author: Elizabeth Hand
First published November, 2019
In 1915, a sexual predator stalks Chicago’s famed Riverview Amusement Park. Pin, a fortune-teller’s daughter passing as a boy, becomes involved in the case after stumbling over a dead body in the Hell Gate ride. Her journey will involve her with a cast of characters, historic and imaginary, including the enigmatic Henry Darger.
A likeably rebellious young character takes us on the ultimate dark ride, as she prowls an amusement park where a killer is hunting children. The author depicts that world in brilliant detail. If you like creepy mysteries and headstrong young heroes, you will enjoy the book.
We also see some reflections, along the way, on gender-related issues.
The Charlie Chaplin bits do not belong in this already crammed narrative.
Originality: 4/6 The author handily combines elements that you’ve seen before, but never quite together.
Imagery: 6/6 Hand does an excellent job of depicting a world lost to us, and which she herself never experienced. She also excels, a little too well, at describing damaged and dead little girls.
Story: 5/6 The sprawling story holds together, though some events happen rather fortuitously.
Characterization: 5/6 I bought into Pin, the novel’s protagonist. Hand has also done her homework on Darger. The supporting cast verges at times on stereotypes.
Emotional Response: 5/6 I read through the book quickly, eager to learn what would happen next, and a little fearful.
Overall score: 5/6
In total, Curious Toys receives 35/42
1. The book contains bibliography of sources and a short account of Henry Darger’s life. If you want an introduction to Darger, I recommend the documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal. His posthumous fame and sheer weirdness guarantees that he can be found all over the web, though not everything you will find may be accurate. As to his art and writing, proceed with caution. Few artists have so earned the caveat, “Not for all tastes.”
2. For all the complaints the characters hurl at Chicago’s Finest, circa 1915, the novel’s cops, if not always competent, prove somewhat progressive for their era. True, they’re bigoted and draw inappropriate conclusions based, in particular, on social class. However, they release the obviously innocent African-American man who was arrested, consider evidence with some real perspective, entertain the notion of a serial killer before the term was well-established (Chicago did have some recent, Holmes-town experience with these, in all fairness), and take tips from some very unlikely amateurs.