Thursday, August 16, 2012
Carnivals have always fascinated me. Lots of color, noise, clashing music and flashing lights, the big rides and sideshows, the game booths promising gigantic stuffed toys to winners, the aroma of everything under the sun being deep-fried. But scratch that surface even slightly, of course, and you see the grime and sleaze underneath. Even as a small boy, I could see that. Everything looked good from a distance, but was dirty and worn up close. Those gigantic stuffed toys were just lures — the real prizes were cheap pieces of junk that fell apart almost immediately. And the games were rigged, anyway. But strangely, that was what appealed to me.
The carnival, it seemed, was a big trick played on people who went to carnivals. (This was long before I realized that most of life is made up of big tricks being played on somebody.) I knew the carnival was a trick, and I knew I knew the carnival was a trick, and yet I kept going back. I played the games, knowing they were rigged. I went through all the sideshows long after I learned that the things promised on the banners in front were always, always huge exaggerations or outright lies. I think it was the trick itself that fascinated me.
One of the sideshows I remember most vividly was the Disconnected Lady. Garishly painted on the huge banners were disconnected arms and legs, and in the center of it all, a woman’s head on a table under glass, while a scantily-clad torso lay on a bed in the background.. “Disconnected! In pieces! Yet she lives and talks! See her! Talk to her!”
A disconnected woman who talked. Ridiculous. Impossible. But it was the kind of thing that appealed to my Creature Features imagination. It was mad scientists and spooky laboratories — it was William Castle! I knew it was bullshit, but I wanted to see how they’d pull it off.
Behind the banners was a tiny little trailer with windows along one side. A narrow path went past the windows and you could stop and look inside, where the trailer vaguely resembled a hospital room. There was a hospital bed to the right and in it lay a woman. She was on her back, with the bed in a semi-upright position. The covers went to her chest, leaving her arms and shoulders bare. Her head was covered with what appeared to be a large white handkerchief. And that’s exactly what she looked like — a woman lying in a bed with her head covered by what appeared to be a large white handkerchief. Occasionally, she would lift an arm and wave toward the windows.
To the left was a round table covered with a white tablecloth that fell all the way to the floor and then crumpled in a circular heap around the table. Sticking up out of the center of the table was a woman’s head. What looked like a white towel was wrapped around her neck. She was an overweight woman in her fifties with short, curly, brown hair, large glasses, a bloated face, and a few gaps in her teeth. I laughed. It was so pathetic, so little effort had been put into it, that all I could do was laugh.
“What are you laughing at?” the Disconnected Lady barked at me. Her pinched voice came over a couple of small speakers above the windows. She looked right at me and said, “Huh? What’s so funny?” I shrugged nervously. “You think this is fun? Bein’ a head on a table? Huh?” She seemed genuinely angry. “You wanna try it?” she shouted, her fat cheeks jiggling. She wasn’t only angry, she was menacing. “You wanna come in here? We’ll disconnect ya an’ you can see how you like it! Think it’ll be funny then, kid?” My insides became watery as I thought to myself, It’s a good thing she’s only a head.
As I walked away from the Disconnected Lady, I realized it had gotten me — not with the staging of the sideshow, which was atrocious, but with that woman’s performance. In spite of the cheesy production values and the obvious zipper in the suit, so to speak, being angrily shouted at by that woman, with only her head visible on the table, had sucked me in. I walked in knowing it was a trick, and even so, it worked on me for a moment. And I walked away with a smile, entertained and oddly satisfied.
I was especially interested in the people my parents called “carnies.” The only time they ever used that word was in the summer when the county fair came along and I wanted to go to the carnival. I was always warned to “Stay away from the carnies!” This was sensible advice, of course, and I heeded it. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t watch the carnies, which I did.
They were unusual people. At a time when tattoos did not enjoy the level of acceptance they've achieved today, the carnies seemed to be covered with them. They were loud, usually angry about something, sometimes violent, and they cursed like sailors. For a while, I thought they spoke in code.
At the carnival with friends when I was about ten or so, I walked by a game booth — a row of pellet guns aimed in the general direction of a row of tiny red stars on the back wall of the booth — being operated by an attractive young blonde woman. There was only one customer at the booth and he had just finished up. As he walked away, the young woman pounded her fist on the counter and shouted at no one in particular in a loud, ugly voice, “When is he gonna come back so I can go pinch a fuckin’ loaf?”
Pinch a fuckin’ loaf? What did that mean? Did she need to make some bread? If so, why would she pinch it? Or was it code for something? The carnies were exotic and mysterious, and whenever I went to the carnival, most of my attention was surreptitiously on them. But I stayed away from them, as my parents had instructed, because they had an air of danger about them. They seemed unpredictable and not very nice. After all, they were the tricksters who were playing the big trick on people who went to the carnival. What did that say about them? Nothing good. But still ...
Sometimes the most interesting people in the world are the people your parents warned you about.
This carnival syndrome — knowing something isn’t real or beneficial, or even that it’s harmful, but being drawn to it, anyway — is not limited to carnivals. It shows up all over the place — in relationships, politics, religion, business, families. But I think carnivals are one of the most interesting examples of it.
When I wrote Serpent Girl, I was feeling a little nostalgic for carnivals, and I wanted to write something set in one. I knew what the title would be, that it was going to be about the woman who played the part of the Serpent Girl at a carnival and the man who falls for her, and that it was going to have a lot of sex. I wanted to see if I could reveal character and develop a relationship using mostly sex. That was all I knew when I started writing the book. I didn’t know if it was going to be a horror story or a crime story, funny or scary.
What I ended up with was the story of Steve Benedetti, a man whose job is secret and solitary and has him on the road a lot. While driving from Oregon to Los Angeles, he sees a carnival off the road and decides to stop and stretch his legs. There he meets the Serpent Girl, a woman who stirs him like no other woman before. He can’t take his eyes off of her. The Serpent Girl is Carmen Mattox, and she’s decided to retire, too — from Dupree Amusements. She hitches a ride with Benedetti. He suffers from carnival syndrome — he knows something’s not right, but he goes along with it, anyway. Together, they hit the road on a dark, erotic journey that will forever change them both.
Serpent Girl is available for Kindle at Amazon and for Nook at Barnes and Noble. If you enjoy the book, I hope you’ll post a review, or a link, or tell a few friends — or all of the above!