Elizabeth Hand has never lived in Chicago, but she’s recently moved into its history. Her new meticulously researched book, Curious Toys, is part coming-of-age story, part crime novel set in Chicago’s old Riverview fun park during the late summer of 1915, when a killer starts to target the park’s young guests. Fourteen-year-old Pin notices when no one else does and sets out to catch the killer with the help of a frequent Riverview patron by the name of Henry Darger.
That name might ring a couple of bells, because the character is based on the celebrated outsider artist Henry Darger, whose posthumously discovered work included collage paintings made from collected trash and madness and featured young children –– sometimes impeccably and adorably outfitted, sometimes being beheaded and tortured. In Curious Toys, as in real life, Darger says he wants to keep children safe but, again as in real life, there’s no telling if Darger is just odd or certifiably dangerous. Pin has her reasons for feeling like an outcast, but might be trusting the wrong grown-ups.
Curious Toys is a fun house mirror of a book. You might expect that, from a novel that features Henry Darger as a private detective. (He was not a private detective.) To be clear, Curious Toys is not as weird as the book Darger wrote, the posthumously discovered 15,145-page — single-spaced, handwritten — fantasy manuscript he left behind or as some of his art. Pin is a great mediating narrator for Darger’s weirdness, with a heartbreaking and dangerous childhood of her own to negotiate. Curious Toys is a lovingly researched and detailed strange Chicago story about one of its actual home-town oddballs with a narrator readers can worry and root for.
I asked Elizabeth Hand a few questions about researching history, the limitations of using real people as characters, and writing across multiple genres.
How did you come across the old Riverview amusement park as the center of your story?
I’ve been obsessed with Henry Darger for decades, and ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by amusement parks, carnivals, circuses, state fairs. In 2002 I reviewed John D. McGregor’s massive 700-page study, Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal, in which Riverview is mentioned as a place Darger visited. Two of the only three known photographs of him were taken there, alongside his friend (his only friend) Willhie Schloeder, and McGregor quotes from Darger’s own work, where he says he and Willhie often visited Riverview.
So right off the bat I had two of my favorite things in one place, Henry Darger and an amusement park. I grew up around NYC, so the amusement parks I knew were Palisades Amusement Park, just across the Hudson from my grandparents’ house in New Jersey, and Playland, in Rye, NY (the beautiful art deco park where many scenes in the Tom Hanks classic “Big” were filmed). I went to Playland a lot during my childhood and adolescence, but Palisades was bigger and scarier than Playland — among other things, it had a freak show — and it made a big impression on me the few times I went there.
When I started researching Riverview (which closed in 1967), I just fell down a rabbit hole. There are several books about it, and a great deal of information online. Most of the latter was devoted to Riverview in its later years, but I was able to find a great deal of material relating to the period (1915, the Progressive Era) where Curious Toys is set. Coney Island’s Luna Park and Dreamland were both active around the same time, as was Wonderland in Revere Beach, Boston, and I was intrigued to learn that all four parks featured many of the same rides and sideshows and games of chance. So I was able to supplement some of what I learned about Riverview with information about those other parks.
I also spent hours poring through online newspaper archives, searching for every Riverview reference from 1911-1917. This was another, even bigger rabbit hole — I found advertisements, photos, some articles and many brief mentions of events at the park and surrounding area. I started researching this book about ten years ago: by the time I finished doing the final edits this past summer, I felt like I’d lived at Riverview for much of a decade.
What were your favorite research finds?
That’s a tough question — there was so much! I had a near-total immersion in Henry Darger’s work, reading and collecting everything I could find about him. As I mentioned, I did a huge amount of research into Riverview, but also into fashion, the arts, politics, and events pertaining to 1915. I read novels by Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather, along with [screenwriter, playwright, journalist, novelist] Ben Hecht’s memoirs, and acquired a substantial collection of 1915 magazines and Chicago newspapers on Ebay and from antique shops — I read and reread those to try and get a deeper sense of how people thought and lived back then. Not much different from today, as it turns out: the advertising industry hasn’t changed as much as one might think. Racism was deeply entrenched, as was misogyny, and there was a pervasive and ugly fear of immigrants — at that time, mostly people from Southern and Eastern Europe, as opposed to the German and Irish immigrants who’d recently set down roots in the city. But this was also the onset of the Northern Migration, so many African Americans had settled in Chicago and quickly put their mark on the city.
One of the more global insights I had — a real Aha! moment — was when I realized Darger, Charlie Chaplin, and Ben Hecht were all roughly the same age (early 20s) and in Chicago at the same time. Same when I learned that Essanay Studio was booming then. I had to fudge Chaplin’s presence slightly, as he’d decamped for California just before the summer of 1915, so I had him making a brief visit to the studio.
And the late, great magician Johnny Thompson told me that the legendary African American magician Black Herman (Benjamin Rucker) would have performed at Riverview around this time. Johnny never saw Black Herman — their lives didn’t overlap — but Johnny had a magic act at Riverview as a boy and remembered hearing accounts of him. So Black Herman became the inspiration for Lord Clyde, the black magician who’s the star of the Ten-in-One show.
Where did this story start for you — character, setting, etc? How did the character of Pin evolve as you wrote?
I nearly always start a novel with its setting, but this time I began with a character, Henry Darger. My mother had the idea that I should write a book featuring Henry Darger as a detective. Darger wrote about a secret society he called the Gemini, who met at the Black Brothers Lodge and had a remit to protect children. Both the Gemini and the Lodge were almost certainly imaginary, which made it very easy for me to imagine Henry imagining himself as a detective.
But nearly every great detective has a sidekick or foil, and I quickly realized Henry would need one, too. Pin just popped into my head, I’m not sure how or why — maybe because I too was a tomboy who longed to be a boy when I was young. I wasn’t setting out to create a young queer heroine, but there she was. In the first draft of the novel, she was younger, eleven going on twelve, still a tomboy but pre-pubescent. My editor Josh Kendall suggested she should be older, and as soon as I adjusted her age, everything pretty much fell into place.
After that point, nothing about her character or M.O. changed much — I just let her and Henry loose in Riverview.
Why write a novel with Henry Darger as a character? What opportunities or limitations did you find, writing with a real person as a character?
Henry Darger is an extraordinary, iconic artist whose work posthumously won him global acclaim. He’s also an iconic Chicago figure — he lived there his entire life, except for a few months when he was drafted for World War I and went to training camp in North Carolina (for obvious reasons, he was sent back home). He had a horrific childhood for which the term “Dickensian” seems inadequate. As a boy he was sent to the Home for Feeble-Minded Children, despite the fact that he was very intelligent. He was institutionalized for years and ran away several times, for good when he was seventeen. He walked 125 miles back to Chicago, found work as a janitor, and spent the rest of his life as a menial. Reclusive and indisputably very strange, he had virtually no contact with anyone, including his kindly landlord, documentary photographer Nathan Lerner, himself a noted Chicago figure.
A few weeks before Darger’s death in 1973 at the age of 81, Lerner came across an immense trove of volumes and paintings when he entered Henry’s apartment to clean it, the 15,145-page The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. What we know of Darger’s life story and posthumous artistic career is well-documented, and you can read about it in print and online, or watch Jessica Yu’s documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal.”
I’m fascinated by artists who work and live outside the mainstream — I’ve written historical novels about the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the notorious Victorian painter Richard Dadd, among others. But Darger offered different challenges. He was such a genuinely strange person. He was obsessed with young girls, in particular five-year-old Elsie Paroubek, who was abducted and murdered in Chicago in 1911. Almost certainly he suffered severe abuse and trauma when he was institutionalized, and you can see that in his paintings and drawings — his artwork is often extremely disturbing and violent. And there’s been some speculation that he was a sexual predator and serial killer, and that he might even have been Elsie Paroubek’s murderer.
Yet he also was genuinely childlike, and retained a weird innocence that comes through in his writings and drawings. I tried to capture that in Curious Toys, along with an underlying note of menace, a sense that he might perhaps be more dangerous than he sometimes appeared. Which perhaps he was. We’ll probably never know.
You write in a lot of genres, or “cross-genre.” What do you think about the divisions between genres, including what we call “literary”? How are these labels useful and when are they not?
I honestly don’t pay attention to genre labels and never have. In the days of brick-and-mortar stores, when booksellers would ask where they should shelve my books, I’d tell them to just stick them under Fiction. I have a low boredom threshold: I don’t like to repeat myself when writing. I don’t like writing the same sort of story over and over — I don’t think anyone should, unless they want to. For a long time, this was seen as a drawback by some editors — why didn’t I stick to science fiction, or noir, or fantasy, or horror, or experimental fiction, or historical novels, or comic books, or young adult novels, or … ?
But after thirty years, all that genre-hopping has become an asset. I’ve been successful at most of the things I’ve tried — my fiction has received a number of awards in different genres — which has given me some artistic freedom, and I can continue to attempt new things. I mention this not to boast, but to offer encouragement for younger or emerging writers, especially women, LGBTQ writers and writers of color: if you stick to your own creative vision, in spite of the odds it can eventually pay off. In a way, that was Henry Darger’s story. I’m just sorry he didn’t live long enough to see how it ended.
By Elizabeth Hand
Published October 15, 2019
Elizabeth Hand is the author of more than fourteen cross-genre novels and collections of short fiction. Her work has received the Shirley Jackson Award (three times), the World Fantasy Award (four times), the Nebula Award (twice), as well as the James M. Tiptree Jr. and Mythopoeic Society Awards. She’s a longtime critic and contributor of essays for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Boston Review, and the Village Voice, among many others. She divides her time between the Maine coast and North London.