Hell Gate's ominous white pavilion looked more like a church than a ride: a church with an enormous red devil perched on the roof… The devil was plaster and lath, but Pin's mother still crossed herself every time she walked past.
This novel, released in 2019 by much-lauded, cross-genre writer Elizabeth Hand manages to be a mystery, a postcard to Chicago's long-gone Riverview Park, a tribute to outsider artist and writer Henry Darger, a coming-of-age story, and a tour of hell. If you don't know Hand's work, she has published fourteen novels, and won Nebula, World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson, and International Horror Guild Awards. She's also written several licensed works for the Star Wars, X-Files, Twelve Monkeys, and other franchises.
Trigger warnings: if you're worried about trigger warnings, why would you read anything that might be considered horror? But the mystery centers on a molester and killer of young girls. Most decidedly NOT for all tastes.
In 1915, a sexual predator stalks Chicago's famed Riverview Amusement Park. Pin, a fortune teller's daughter passing as a boy, becomes involved in the case after stumbling over a dead body in the Hell Gate ride. Her journey will involve her with a cast of characters, historic and imaginary, including the enigmatic Henry Darger.
The author depicts the lost world of the old-time, carnivalesque amusement park in brilliant detail. That detail often becomes, at sudden turns, disturbing. She excels a little too well at describing damaged and dead little girls.
We also see some reflections, along the way, on gender-related issues. Pin proves a likeable, bold, and occasionally innocent protagonist, navigating a space that does not fit comfortably into her culture's norms. Darger comes across as profoundly disturbed but well-intentioned, which seems a likely reading. Other characters can veer towards stereotype, but they function well in the tale.
The sprawling story holds together. Even for a novel set in a crazy, crowded urban amusement park, it sprawls a little too much. For example, Charlie Chaplin turns up, briefly, and then returns, briefly, a few more times. Hand clearly wants to trade on his reputation as a chickenhawk to make of him a red herring and add to the book's subtext regarding the sexualization of young girls. His appearances add little to the story and they grow increasingly disconnected from it. The novel would have been better if he had been removed, or retained only as a passing pop-culture reference.
But it remains a strong novel, intriguing and suspenseful. I read quickly, eager to learn what would happen next, and a little fearful. If you like horrifically creepy mysteries and headstrong young heroes, you will enjoy playing with Curious Toys.