Before the dust of the departing circus train settles, there is time for a post or two more. June, which was dedicated to the Circus of Horrors (that is, the horror of the circus) certainly lived up to the name.
Rather than head into July leaving no trace of the circus behind, I’m bending time (as usual) and allowing a few choice pieces to linger in the dancing dust… to scatter sequins of the circus past.
First up, the wonderful Chloe Campbell is stepping into the ring and brandishing the whip from Manchester, England. Chloe is a freelance copywriter currently working towards an MA in English Studies. Her return to education follows a career in academic publishing and is driven by an interest in contemporary Gothic and Trauma narratives.
Chloe defines small ‘g’ gothic (but that’s another topic entirely) as “subversive, transgressive and enticing.”
“The gothic mode,” she continues, “provides such a rich symbolic language that allows us to examine and question a number of societal and cultural issues. With the gothic, everything and anything is possible. I particularly like the aesthetics of, and the themes explored in, Southern Gothic narratives.”
Whilst this last point is fantastic timing considering that Generally Gothic is under a Southern Spell all month long, Chloe’s penultimate point is the one to keep in mind as you enter the carnival of Geek Love… Without further ado, gentlefolk and spooky nerds, I present: Chloe Campbell.
𝕶𝖆𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖗𝖎𝖓𝖊 𝕯𝖚𝖓𝖓’𝖘 𝕲𝖊𝖊𝖐 𝕷𝖔𝖛𝖊: 𝕬𝖓 𝕴𝖓𝖙𝖎𝖒𝖆𝖙𝖊 𝕻𝖔𝖗𝖙𝖗𝖆𝖎𝖙 𝖔𝖋 𝖆 𝕹𝖚𝖈𝖑𝖊𝖆𝖗 𝕱𝖆𝖒𝖎𝖑𝖞
For most, the carnival is a spectacle to which we are mere spectators and visitors, but what if the travelling carnival is your home and the sideshow ‘freaks’ are your family? Katherine Dunn’s dazzling and dark Geek Love draws readers into the subversive world of the Binewski Carnival Fabulon, in a novel which plays with perspective as curiously and peculiarly as any funhouse mirror.
While travelling carnivals welcomed audiences into Big Top tents to bear witness to circus acts packed with acrobatics, clowns, and trained animals, the carnival sideshows lured in those looking for more unusual sights. Sideshows, also referred to as freak shows, became popular in 16th century England, when non-white people and people with non-normative bodies were exhibited as objects of interest. After reaching the height of their popularity in the 19th century and early 20th century, freak shows declined in popularity as attitudes toward physical difference and disability changed. However, some freak shows do still operate in the USA, with the Coney Island Circus Sideshow proudly proclaiming “They’re here, they’re real and they’re alive! Freaks, wonders and human curiosities!”
“A real geek was a circus or carnival performer, presented as feral or psychotic, who bit the heads off live chickens. Sometimes rats or snakes or other beasts were substituted, but the chicken was the most common victim.”
– Katherine Dunn, Introduction to Geek Love
Writers like Ray Bradbury had previously depicted the arcane temptation of the carnival to curious outsiders, but Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel Geek Love presents a first-person narrative from inside the freak show, painting a staggering and immersive portrait of unconventional yet all-American family.
“I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.”
– Arturo Binewski, Geek Love
Narrated by daughter Olympia, Geek Love details the family behind Binewski’s Carnival Fabulon. When the Fabulon falls on hard times, owner Al Binewski and wife Crystal Lil (a former carnival geek) hatch a plan to breed their own freakshow by polluting Crystal’s pregnancies with drugs and radioactive materials. The Binewski fertility experiments resulted in the successful births of Arturo (Arty), a boy with flippers for hands and feet, beautiful conjoined twins Electra and Iphigenia (Elly and Iphy), Olympia (Oly), a hunchbacked bald albino dwarf, and Fortunato (Chick), who soon reveals telekinetic abilities. Crystal Lil justifies their experimentation when expressing “What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?”
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Oly is recording the Binewski family history for her estranged daughter Miranda, a conventionally beautiful artist who was raised far away from the Binewski Fabulon. Superficially, Miranda appears to be a ‘norm’, until she reveals her tail when dancing at the Glass House, a club that caters to men with singular tastes. Miranda’s appendage proves to be surprisingly popular, gaining her attention from the notorious Miss Lick, a rich woman who encourages attractive women to mutilate themselves in exchange for enormous sums of money. Miss Lick’s own distorted brand of ‘feminism’ requires that attractive women mutilate themselves beyond recognition in order to focus on fulfilling, professional careers, and Oly witnesses her take an interest in her beloved daughter. Keen to preserve Miranda’s tail, Oly sets out to learn more about Miss Lick’s intentions to desexualise a generation of women.
“They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born.”
― Olympia Binewski, Geek Love
In engineering his own family of freaks, Al Binewski shows himself to be a true capitalist and commodity fetishist, believing (and often expressing) measuring the value of his children by considering their capacity to make money as a carnival act. The Binewski children are ranked by their potential to be a spectacle for paying customers, evoking Guy Debord’s work The Society of the Spectacle.
“The society of the spectacle began everywhere in coercion, deceit and blood, but it promised a happy path. It believed itself to be loved. Now it no longer says “What appears is good; what is good appears”; now it says simply “It is so”.”
― Guy Debord, The Society Of The Spectacle
To the Binewski family, appearances matter. When Chick is born with no visible deformities, Crystal and Al consider leaving him on a doorstop as they do not consider him a valuable asset to the family. When Chick shows telekinetic abilities, the Binewski parents deem him a valuable commodity, and, therefore, a son deserving of their love.
From a young age, their parents encourage the Binewski children to prioritise bodily difference above all else, which results in Oly feeling inadequate due to her ‘commonplace deformities’ but drives Arty’s feelings of superiority. As the star act in the Binewski Fabulon, Arturo repeatedly receives praise from his family and his captivated audience, a trajectory of recognition and celebration that propels him to cult leader status. Arty is a profitable commodity to the Fabulon and he profits from the masses of ‘norms’ who pay him to amputate their limbs so they can transcend their ordinariness and physical form to achieve contentment and salvation.
“Can you be happy with the movies and the ads and the clothes in the stores and the doctors and the eyes as you walk down the street all telling you there is something wrong with you? No. You can’t. You cannot be happy. Because, you poor darling baby, you believe them . . . Now, girl, I want you to look at me and tell me, what do you want?”
– Arturo Binewski, Geek Love
Scholars have discussed Geek Love in relation to class, patriarchy, marginalisation, motherhood, feminism, disability studies, American individualism, and Mary Russo’s notion of the female grotesque. In Geek Love, Dunn primarily examines familial relationships and conflict while challenging perspectives on normalcy and conformity, prompting us to question what it is that makes a person monstrous, and who indeed are the true freaks.
The influence of Geek Love can be seen in the horror anthology series American Horror Story: Freak Show, while novels such as Half Life, Swamplandia!, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children detail similar narratives of unhappily conjoined twins, unusual amusement parks, freakshows, extraordinary children, and the beauty of difference.
“A carnival in daylight is an unfinished beast, anyway. Rain makes it a ghost. The wheezing music from the empty, motionless rides in a soggy, rained-out afternoon midway always hit my chest with a sweet ache.”
– Olympia Binewski, Geek Love
Well, that certainly piqued my interest, as I hope it did yours! A huge thank you to Chloe for sharing this profound and grotesque portrayal of the circus gothic.
Have you read Geek Love? Who do you identify as the truly monstrous? Let’s chat!
If you’d like to see your artwork or writing (creative or critical) here, get in touch – submissions are open.
Keep reading with Hawai’i, History, & the Unexpected Gothic: ‘The Hala Tree Walks in Darkness’, Paris Was a Woman, Bristol her Admirer, and Curate a Library to Help You See: in Maya’s Words.