Curious Toys

Written by Elizabeth Hand
Review by Fiona Alison

The summer of 1915, Chicago, finds fourteen-year-old Pin disguising herself as a boy as she wanders the Riverview Amusement Park alone. Her mother works for a pittance as a fortune-teller, and Pin is flipped a nickel here and there, by Max, the She-Male, for the risky job of delivering reefers to a writer at the Essanay Film Studio, where she meets Glory (Gloria) Swanson and Walter Beery.

This is the era of nickelodeons, vaudeville, burlesque and ragtime piano; not to mention seersucker suits and boaters. Pin watches a man wearing such an outfit escort a young girl into the Hellgate Ride and exit alone. Glancing around, she notices too many men are wearing the same. She encounters the mad ‘outsider artist’ Henry Darger, watching her from a distance. Is he friend or foe? Does he want to save little girls or murder them? Is he, in fact, protecting Pin?

Delve into Curious Toys and you will find a sinister tale made all the more so by Hand’s deft prose, bringing to visceral life the bustle and clamour, the smells, the chaos of a thousand people storming the gates, impatient children frantically tugging on mamas’ skirts. Curious Toys is dark, atmospheric, and downright macabre in places, but well-developed in the skilled hands of the author, who juxtaposes the fragile veneer of frivolity against a dark and menacing undertow. She intertwines the psychopathy of the killer, the madness of Darger and the musings of others, such that it’s not always clear whose thoughts are speaking, but this literary device works well to muddle the clues. Pin is thoroughly likeable, spunky, clever and resolutely set on exposing the killer with or without help. If you enjoy dark, creepy tales, this one’s for you!