Nick Harper has a nice life, a nice job, and a nice girl. Until Labor Day Weekend, when the Phantasmagoria Traveling Wonder Show comes to town.
Seduced by the dark and wickedly erotic charms of both the Phantasmagoria and Torturo, a man known in the freak sideshow as The Pain King, Nick embarks on a journey of self-discovery, love, and pain.
But the show is not what it seems. It changes those who come with it in ways they can never imagine, not even in their worst nightmares.
And Nick's changes are just beginning...
So where did this dark and twisted sideshow come from?
1) Peculiar MO
The town of Peculiar is very real, and I only took a few liberties with the 1986 geography (it has more than doubled in size since I moved away). Most of the locations are quite real. Most of the people are very real. Some names were changed to protect the guilty, innocent and all in-between.
Nick's duplex. This is the one that stands at his address. I lived in it for about 4 years, between the ages of 2 and 6.
Looking North on Broadway at the water tower
Looking south on Broadway, from the water tower.
First Baptist. Where Nick picked up a load of self-loathing and guilt. Readers will be pleased to know Brother Bob no longer preaches there and their pastor now is a good and compassionate man.
This is the house I used for Lisa's home. It's my old house. When I lived there it was white with black trim, and there were evergreens on each side of the door. Mom grew irises under the front window and four o'clocks under the bedroom one.
2) Freaks (1932, Tod Browning)
This movie caused mass panic in the audiences because it used actual circus performers. I was rapt. Daisy and Violet Hilton were the inspiration for Alice and Dinah (who are rather less sweet than their origins). JoJo the Dog-faced boy (not in the film) was the inspiration for Wolfgang. And Joseph/ine is the mundane version of Jene.
3) The Freakshow by Bryan Smith
The Flaherty Brothers Traveling Carnivale and Freakshow has rolled into Pleasant Hills, Tennessee, and the quiet little town will never be the same. In fact, much of the town won't survive. At first glance, the freakshow looks like so many others--lurid, rundown, decrepit. But this freakshow is definitely one of a kind...
The townspeople can't resist the lure of the tawdry spectacle, though it isn't mere morbid curiosity that draws them into the freakshow's inescapable web. What waits for them behind this curtain are hardly the usual performers and tricks. The main attractions are living nightmares, the acts center on torture and slaughter...and the stars of the show are the unsuspecting customers themselves.
4) Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a carny family whose mater- and paterfamilias set out–with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes–to breed their own exhibit of human oddities. There’s Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan . . . Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins . . . albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious–and dangerous–asset.
As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same.
This...is not a book to read while pregnant. But I did.
And it imprinted itself on me enough that some of the acts, like the Pin Kid and the Geek (who form the base of Torturo's act) made it into my story.
There are many sites on the net devoted to sideshows. I found them quite useful.
I visited actual carnivals, including the Delta Fair which had a freak show. I paid my dollar to see what they had. There was the usual giant stuffed snake, along with a story of a Vietnam vet who was so strung out on heroin he believed the thing was his commanding officer. And several magical illusions. They nearly hired me to do the Houdini talk, since I knew the tale better than the person doing it.
The midway, with the chanting come-on of "All Alive on the Inside!"
My youngest getting a turn as Arachnea, the Spider Girl. They had a Genie in a Bottle illusion as well.
A bouncer thing they call a chupacabra.
I wrote Alive on the Inside, because part of me is still 7 and seeing the two-headed baby in a jar in a trailer full of pictures of historical freaks, uptown on Broadway on a hot summer night at Peculiar's Bushwhacker Days.