ON A SUMMER DAY in the early 1900s, a stroll down an amusement park boardwalk could include a roller-coaster ride, a ring toss, or a freak show. It might also feature a decidedly more bizarre attraction: the glassed-in compartments of living, breathing, tiny babies. Designed to show off the new technology aimed at keeping premature babies alive, infant incubator exhibits were sideshow spectacles for decades — one was a seasonal mainstay at Coney Island from 1903 to 1943.
The creepy novelty of incubator exhibits is one of several eerie early 20th-century enticements in Elizabeth Hand’s Curious Toys. Hand takes a break from her photographer-sleuth Cass Neary series (Generation Loss, Available Dark, Hard Light) to set this stand-alone novel in 1915 Chicago’s Riverview Park. Demolished in 1967, Riverview is a flickering fixture in the city’s imagination — in 2017, the Chicago Tribune remembered the amusement park as “a melding of heaven and hell, seedy and serene, glitzy and garish.” Hand, as is her wont, homes in on its darkness. Seen through the eyes of Pin Maffucci, the scrawny 14-year-old daughter of the park’s fortune-teller, this Riverview is all underbelly.
Pin and her mother are squatters in a makeshift shack on the Riverview grounds during the summer months. Pin scrapes up enough for her meager meals by running reefer cigarettes from a dealer in the park to customers around town, including a screenwriter at the landmark Essanay silent-film studios. She is disguised as a boy at her mother’s insistence, to keep her safer from the park’s more unsavory customers and the city at large. Dressed in street-urchin clothes, “[n]o one paid her any mind. She was just another footloose boy, not big enough to pose a threat unless you found his hand in your pocket.” Pin doesn’t mind cutting her hair short and wearing pants; she’s more into girls anyway.
So is someone else at the park — but in a murderous way. One August afternoon, after seeing Charlie Chaplin at Essanay earlier in the day, Pin watches a man resembling the movie star take a young girl on a boat into the Hell Gate. Only the man emerges from the dark ride, and when a curious Pin goes into the Hell Gate to investigate, she finds the girl’s nude corpse.
Chaplin’s not the only celebrity cameo in Curious Toys. Soon, Pin meets the outsider artist and janitor Henry Darger, a fellow Hell Gate lurker who also witnessed the girl’s disappearance. Darger presents her with a strange card that reads: “GEMINI CHILD PROTECTIVE SOCIETY, BLACK BROTHERS LODGE, HENRICO DARGERO, PRES.” His behavior is as off-kilter as aficionados of Darger’s art might imagine. (For more, see the acclaimed 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, which details the janitor’s 15,145-page manifesto about a fierce brigade of girls, many of them transgender, their faces and bodies painstakingly rendered from found catalogs and street trash. The Vivian Girls, as Darger called them, underwent ordeals that involved torture and massacre, but they always fought back against their enemies.) Despite his weird demeanor, Darger’s protective concern for the missing girl seems genuine to Pin, whose own younger sister has also mysteriously disappeared. Bonded by the mystery, the two join forces to hunt the killer at Riverview.
Pin is a canny lead; her sense of wonderment at the world is just beginning to develop shadows. The park, as seen through her eyes, is a mixture of magic and decrepitude — a place where a grease-painted face gives way to a grimace. Each night at sunset, she finds a vantage point to watch the sunset on the Hippodrome stadium.
Once the sun dipped below the horizon, colors bled from the world like dye from untreated cloth. The Hippodrome’s pale façade darkened to grey, its shadow angel, more mysterious and sinister: a guardian angel, but whom was it protecting? The fading light tinted women’s white dresses and shirtwaists lavender, turned the miles of red, white, and blue bunting into ashy ribbons.
Pin’s preoccupation with the murdered girl is rooted in the riddle of what may have happened to her sister. But with the help of Darger, she also develops a realization of just how precarious a girl’s place in this world is, given the predators lurking in the amusement park and the movie studio. Figuring out how to fight back and carve out a place for herself is fraught, given her poverty, her cross-dressing, and her sexuality. “We aren’t easily intimidated / And yet we are always frightened,” proclaims the novel’s John Ashbery epigraph, summing up Pin’s appealing mix of pluck and vulnerability. (Those Ashbery lines come from Girls on the Run, the poet’s own epic exploration of the Darger universe.)
Told in short, deft chapters that include both Darger and the killer’s perspectives (which may or may not be one and the same), the novel pays as much attention to narrative twists and turns as it does to the delights of burgeoning modernity. Hand is a gearhead who loves to geek out on photography history in the Cass Neary series; here, an Essanay cameraman enthusiastically explains to Pin the relationship between reel lengths and running time (300 feet for a five-minute short, and so on). Hand spent nearly a decade researching this era of Chicago history, and Curious Toys is chockablock with engrossing historical asides — on Louella Parsons, who began her career writing movies for Essanay; on how the silents mined Edgar Allan Poe and The Saturday Evening Post for source material; on the ease of obtaining opium-heavy cough syrups from neighborhood pharmacies even after they were outlawed by the government. Darger’s artistic preoccupations, as well as his many eccentricities, could become clunky plot-weights in other hands, but Hand gives his unreliability a chiaroscuro quality. We are not sure whether to trust him, but like Pin, we want to.
The novel’s overarching ambience of terror is never sacrificed during its more idiosyncratic historical detours. “Dark ride” doesn’t just describe the lurid indoor amusements contained in Hell Gate — it’s an apt summary of Curious Toys and all its shadowy diversions. These crop up in herky-jerky rhythms, lurching out at the reader like midway barkers or costumed nightmares stalking a haunted house.
Behind the carnival facades and film sets, the sense of dread is all too real. Part of it is the movie industry’s enduring obsession with pedophilia, which is aptly presaged and underlined. One character muses, “[T]hink about it — Blanche Sweet, Mary Pickford, Gladys Egan, those Gish girls — they’re all grown women, but in the movies they make them look like kids. Some of them were kids when they started, twelve, thirteen years old.” Pin’s layer of protection against the park’s murderer — the material that binds her adolescent breasts — is whisper-thin. One warning resounds, hanging over the park like the swampy odors emanating from the Hell Gate’s canal: “Girls get killed all the time.”