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Celebrated novelists John Crowley and Elizabeth Hand discuss Hand’s new novel and the ways that historical fiction can and cannot answer our questions about the past.
The people Elizabeth Hand creates are often on the run: from dark forces only they can perceive, from actual enemies who want to erase them, from families and social and sexual structures that they experience as harm. Her Cass Neary Crime Novels feature punk photographer Cass Neary, recorder of the New York punk scene of the 1970s, who in the books is hunted, threatened, and harmed by people with reasons to do so, including herself. Hand’s novel Mortal Love (2004) features the British “outsider artist” Richard Dadd (1817–1886), who lived for years in asylums after killing his father (whom he believed was a threatening demon). Dadd’s obsessive paintings are filled with dozens of tiny figures—fairies, little people, insect-like beings—who (in Hand’s novel) lead contemporaries such as Algernon Swinburne into dangerous realms of possibility and terror.
‘There are hidden creative spirits like Darger walking the streets right now, and we’ll never know because we don’t want to. Historical fiction can be a kind of cheat in that respect: it let’s us think, “I would have recognized this person’s greatness.”’
Dadd’s obsessions and his episodes of madness connect him to another figure of Hand’s personal masque: Henry Darger (1892–1973), whom she has written about with great sympathy and insight. For most of his adult life, Darger worked as a hospital custodian in Chicago. His magnum opus, the 15,000-page illustrated novel In the Realms of the Unreal, was discovered in his rented room only after his death. Darger’s art, like Dadd’s, is filled with hundreds of tiny characters, all alike and yet distinct; they are engaged in terrifying events, massacres, battles, dismemberments, and yet the pictures magically remain innocent, even charming. Darger, who spent his childhood and young adult life in institutions, wrote in an autobiographical piece that “I hated to see the day come when I will be grown up. I never wanted to. I wished to be young always.” His imagination was crowded with images of death and destruction visited on children, especially young girls, and yet his heroines are brave, strong, and fight for one another. The huge pictures he made of battles and monsters were mostly created by collage—advertisements, catalogues, and photographs, usually traced and painted. He died without ever seeing his work accepted or even seen—and it may be he wanted it that way. His fame is secure now: major museums have exhibited his largescale works, which he made on wrapping paper; John Ashbery even wrote a long poem that essentially retells Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal.
Now, in Hand’s large and thickly-populated new novel Curious Toys, Darger appears in a different form: not as a reference or a presiding spirit but a character in his own right, and in his own time: a very odd young man, but valiant and even a hero, in his way. The novel is—appropriately—about the murder of young girls, and the last-minute escape of some.
Escape, in many senses, is what the book is concerned with. The central character of the novel is also a young girl, whose sister was murdered before the book opens, the murderer never caught. Pin, as the girl has named herself, dresses as a boy. Her mother, terrified of losing her too, insists on the disguise, which Pin at fourteen is very happy with. She can go anywhere boys go, unrestrained by clothing or mores, in the roiling world that Hand has created for her: a huge Chicago amusement park, Riverview, in the year 1915. Pin’s mother, Gina, from the Sicilian slum near the park, now works at Riverview as a fortune-teller. Pin hangs around the new Essanay movie studio, catching a glimpse of Charlie Chaplin and developing a crush on a nascent star called Glory; she carries reefer for the “She-Male” exhibitor and collects the money; and she hangs out at the Hell Gate ride. The amusement would, at other parks, be called the Tunnel of Love, but it has the right name here: it’s where Pin catches sight of a man taking a female child into a boat, and coming out alone.
As a mystery novel, Curious Toys belongs with those where we are intimate from the beginning with the murderer, and yet are kept from knowing which among the large cast he is. We know his obsessions, his tricks for attracting his prey; we are inside his mind. But I doubt many readers will guess his name before the last pages. Within the bustle and color and people, real and imagined, is a classic mystery, carefully plotted and executed. Darger, Pin’s outsider friend, is of course a suspect—his imagination is filled with images of murdered girls, he is given to strange outbursts of rage and passion—but the killer we observe, whose thoughts we know, seems from the beginning a quite different character.
As I read the book, I wondered about the authenticity of the Chicago amusement park, whether each of the stops on Pin’s rounds had some sort of basis in fact, or were more like the stations of a fantasy novel, the author’s allegory. Not long ago, I had a conversation with Hand about the book, and learned to my surprise. . . well, this:
‘While I always try to create as authentic and absorbing a portrait of a period as I can, I love playing with all the what ifs of history.’
John Crowley: What drew you to set your story in early twentieth-century Chicago, specifically in a huge amusement park of a new kind (mechanical and scientific displays) and a movie studio making films that showed changing mores—in other words, a world of relatively new female freedoms, and working-class young people enjoying new forms of cheap entertainment? Did the story come first, or the environment where it was set?
Elizabeth Hand: I had long wanted to write a book about Henry Darger, though it was my mother’s idea to make him a detective. The more I researched Darger’s Chicago, the more I realized it was a place where barriers were falling—sexual, racial, economic—and that early movies and amusement parks were among the battering rams bringing down those walls. Riverview billed itself as a family place, but its woods and the Fairyland picnic ground accommodated romantic assignations along with families and social clubs.
JC: Readers may not be aware (as I was not) of how deeply you’ve intertwined Darger, Chicago custodial institutions such as St. Joseph’s—a real place—and urban poverty. In your mind, how does Darger fit into the landscape of Chicago that you present?
EH: I knew virtually nothing about the period during which Darger lived as a young man—the so-called Progressive Era, leading up to the United States entering World War I. I was much more knowledgeable about Britain’s cultural history of that time; for whatever reason, U.S. history didn’t interest me. Chicago was also terra incognita—I have family there and have visited over the years, but I’m a New Yorker who’s lived in northern New England for more than half my life. So when I began researching what became Curious Toys (which took almost ten years), I entered what was, for me, mostly virgin territory.
JC: So Riverview was a real place that just seems invented.
EH: Oh yes, it was real! I have a lifelong love of amusement parks, carnivals, circuses, fairs, and the like. So once I learned that Darger frequented Riverview Amusement Park, and that Essanay Studios was booming not far uptown, everything fell into place. Amusement parks and cinema became mass entertainments at about the same time in the early twentieth century. Both were cheap, and also accessible to the country’s burgeoning immigrant population. You didn’t need to read the title cards of silent films to understand what was happening on screen, any more than you needed to speak fluent English to ride the Witching Waves or Jackrabbit Coaster.
JC: Does the mode of historical fiction offer unique resources to illustrate and discuss the lives of figures such as Darger, who are never accepted or understood in their own time?
‘I can’t be an observer—I wasn’t there. And I’ll leave commentary to historians. I was drawn to the mystery at the heart of Darger’s work, and I knew going in that this was not a mystery that I could solve.’
EH: I don’t know if someone like Darger would be accepted or understood today—he’d probably be seen as a crazy man, practically homeless, mentally ill. People would cross the street to avoid contact with him. Darger never escaped extreme poverty, or the memory of the sexual and physical trauma he almost certainly experienced in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children where he was institutionalized as a child. Even if he didn’t experience sexual abuse himself (which seems unlikely), I’m sure he witnessed it. That’s what he drew on for his more disturbing images of children being tortured or mutilated. He relived that childhood trauma over and over through the adventures of his novel’s protagonists, the Vivian Girls, who are endlessly fighting their adult male oppressors, constantly being captured and tortured by them, then miraculously escaping to live and fight another day.
There are probably untold hidden creative spirits like Darger walking the streets right now, and we’ll never know their work or history because we don’t want to. I think historical fiction can be a kind of cheat in that respect: it puts writer and reader in collusion, so we both think, “Oh, I would have recognized this person’s greatness or talent or secret sorrow.” But without the compassion (and curiosity) of people like William Schloeder, Darger’s only friend, or Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, his landlords who found his work and didn’t just throw it away, we’ll never see the Henry Dargers who live among us.
JC: Historical fictions are designed largely as a sort of medley: true details of time and place, actual persons of the period treated as fictional characters with their own point of view, invented persons who interact with the historical ones, real events that will form memories for the real people and for the fictional ones. You’ve long been drawn to this kind of fiction and its possibilities. What do you think its power is, for writer and reader?
EH: Well, as you know yourself, history is an immense sandbox for a writer to play in. I would add “fulfilling,” but can a sandbox be fulfilling? I love research, searching for and delving into primary sources in hopes of discovering some nugget of information that’s somehow gone unnoticed, that I can then use in a story. And while I always try to create as authentic and absorbing a portrait of a period as I can, I love playing with all the what ifs of history. Darger and Chaplin and Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht and others were all in Chicago at the same time: what if their paths crossed in some way?
JC: A theme of Curious Toys is how people in that period were fascinated with human oddities (fake or real), and you explore how, as much as that was about fear and wonder over the bodies of differently-abled people, it was also connected with the period’s gender rules and expectations. How much of this background psychology do you expect readers will sense?
EH: I never know what readers will “get” or not. To me, some things in a narrative seem perfectly obvious, yet are completely overlooked by readers (and critics). But I hope that my depiction of that period and its fears and bigotries is realistic enough that readers grasp how similar it was to our own time, even though many things have changed for the better. I came across an anti-immigrant government screed from around 1915 that could have been written yesterday by a member of the current administration. Gender expectations have changed since 1915; I suspect Pin would have very similar experiences were she to pull the same gender reversals today, though they’d be updated for the twenty-first-century workplace. I guess my real concern should be that some readers will think my historical depiction of an earlier era’s prejudices is fake news.
JC: Those fears and desires seem potentially in tension with the speculative genre of historical fiction.
EH: I don’t see historical fiction as necessarily being speculative, though there’s certainly speculative fiction—science fiction, fantasy, supernatural—that has a historical setting. As mentioned, I’ve written several novels or novellas of that type (as have you, John). But with Curious Toys, I was much more interested in creating as much of a truly “authentic” depiction of 1915 Chicago as I could, insofar as “authentic fiction” is an oxymoron. There really aren’t any speculative elements in it, though I obviously invented the last scene between Pin and Henry, in which her (fictional) role in the creation of the Vivian Girls is revealed. As for the roles of outcasts in fiction, it’s hard to imagine any novel or story that doesn’t feature an outcast of some sort, from the Book of Genesis to Moby-Dick to Margaret Atwood’s The Testament.
JC: “Outlandish” then is in the eye of the beholder?
EH: People perceived as Other by those in the mainstream don’t think of themselves that way until someone else defines them as such. The original meaning of “outlandish” is foreign or non-native, and in the context of Curious Toys, that would mean people like Pin’s immigrant mother, Gina, as well as other immigrants, African Americans, those who are differently abled or neuroatypical, queer, poor, female—basically anyone who wasn’t a white man. Today, of course, the behavior of certain white men is what’s regarded as outlandish.
JC: How does the portrayal of the outlandish and the outcast fit into a work that strives to be both authentic and speculative? Does the author let us see how the past really was, or estrange us enough with the fiction that we can unlock the present meanings of past?
EH: It’s impossible for me to see how the past really was. Even my own past is lost to me—another country, as William Faulkner put it. And I truly wasn’t interested in creating a sense of estrangement, but the opposite. My background is in cultural anthropology, where one usually starts by determining what we have in common with a social or ethnic or religious group, rather than what makes us different. I hoped readers might see how similar Pin’s world is to ours, with all its bigotries and mysteries and delights and perils. I can’t be an observer—I wasn’t there. And I’ll leave commentary to historians. I was drawn to the mystery at the heart of Darger’s work, and I knew going in that this was not a mystery that I (or anyone else) could solve. I just wanted more people to know about this brilliant, peculiar, lonely man and the world he inhabited. Darger lived to tell stories, and I thought he deserved one of his own.
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