Summerween: Creepy Carnivals

Step right up, Bookwyrms, and behold a spectacle of supernatural proportions!  It’s the first (possibly) annual…

Summerween post!!!

…here at Postcards, and the theme this year is creepy carnival hijinks of the actually paranormal variety!  We all know those traveling sideshows are meant to suspend our disbelief for a while — to make us wonder if the fortune teller really might have the sixth sense, or whether that is a real mermaid in the tank…

But the following stories take us all the way to the other side.  Here, the were-cat really does shift from man to beast.  The mermaid really does grow scales, and that really is a unicorn/centaur selling goblin-fruit turnovers.  So, if you’re not able to attend any real-life faires or circuses this year, you might as well wander across the literary midway with me!

Photo of myself, a woman with short dark hair and a Venetian Carnival mask (white and rectangular with a long, sharp beak) and a sleeveless top with multicolored vertical stripes. I'm standing in the middle of a market in Rome.

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Carnie punk playlist:

  • “Freakshow,” by Ani DiFranco (explicit)
  • “Mirabel,” by Tara Linda
  • “Somebody’s Daughter,” by Tasmin Archer
  • “Kooks,” by David Bowie
  • “Get What You Give,” by Felix Cartal

Bingo squares:  I’m counting Seanan McGuire’s In an Absent Dream as “a book in the middle of the series,” and Mariko Tamaki’s The Moon is Up as “a book I saw someone else reading.”

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Cover of Sideshow, edited by Deborah Noyes. The title is a molten, flaming red, in a Wild West font, in the middle of the cover. Below it, in the same font, is the darker red subtitle: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists, and Other Matters Odd and Magical. Under that, in blue, are the ten authors included in the book. The background is a deep fiery red at the top, shifting into black on the bottom half of the cover. In the red section, you can see a curtain bordered with black stars at the bottom, with a golden light shining through the upper-middle part of the cover.

Scare-o-meter:  5 out of 10 long-lost keys to a bitter woman’s cabinet of curiosities.

First up is a Deborah Noyes anthology.  She previously edited Gothic! and The Restless Dead.  Now she turns to the world of carnival ghosts and traveling therianthropes.  In Sideshow, Noyes presents ten stories by authors like David Almond and Annette Curtis Klause.  Although a few do leave some room for doubt, most involve explicitly genuine magicians and shape-shifters.

My favorite stories were:

  • Klause’s “The Mummy’s Daughter,” about a dancer who keeps her ancient mother’s spirit alive by performing her tragic love story every night, until she finds that her performance is being used for more nefarious purposes.
  • Vivian Vande Velde’s “Those Psychics on TV,” about a boy who convinces his mother to entrap a visiting medium, with unexpected results.
  • and Cecil Castellucci’s “The Bread Box,” about a two-hundred-year-old bread starter, passed down from the wagons of the Oregon Trail, which produces the most unnervingly delicious sourdough you’ve ever tasted.  Ok, so this ones a bit more distantly carnival-related, but besides the nineteenth-century caravan connection, you could see Great Aunt Eden’s house as a supernatural cabinet of wonders.

This collection is just spooky enough to put you in the pre-Halloween mood, but never strays too far into horror territory.  It’s definitely a feel-good fright fest.

Cover of the short story

Scare-o-meter:  4 out of 10 autumn trees dressed in “kiss-a-carnie gold.”

Next up is a standalone short story by Seanan McGuire, from the collection Carniepunk.  I considered reading the full anthology, but the first two stories were so unpleasantly horrifying they completely turned me off from reading any further (I ended up buying an e-copy of McGuire’s story individually, because I just knew it was going to be more comfortably creepy).  I may discuss that a bit more in my year-end DNF report, but for now, let’s follow McGuire’s caravan to a small town in Alabama, which hasn’t seen the Miller Family Carnival in seventeen years and may be a little too happy to see Ada Miller return.

As in the Ingo books by Helen Dunmore, McGuire’s half-merfolk must think hard before choosing an ocean life, for the ocean takes not only the air out of you, but some of your sanity as well.  How does one balance?  How does one answer the call of the sea without losing one’s earthly self?

To anyone who’s read the entirety of Carniepunk, can you tell me if the rest of the anthology is more like McGuire’s story or if “Daughter of the Midway” is the only oasis in a generally grimdark world?

Cover of In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire. The white title stands against a dark, shadowed oak tree with a slightly glowing door in its trunk. Surrounding the tree are dark grey-green shadowed leaves.

Scare-o-meter:  5 out of 10 girls with impossibly orange owl eyes and feathers in their hair (yes, my Labyrinth senses were tingling 😉 )

Riding the Seanan McGuire train further, I traveled through the fourth of her Wayward Children books:  In an Absent Dream.  Before she taught at Eleanor West’s boarding school for recovering portal crossers, Katherine Lundy traveled back and forth to the Goblin Market, a world ruled by the iron principle of Fair Value.  For everything you’re given, there is a price, and you will always pay — one way or another.

This was one of the more bittersweet of McGuire’s stories, but I couldn’t completely fault the Goblin Market for its ideology.  As the Archivist explains, the Market is in some ways a much more equitable world than ours — a world where no one is charged more than they can give.  A world that understands that “fairness is a subjective thing, not a fixed target.”  And yet, there is always something substantial sacrificed for long-term residence in such a utopia.  For “utopia,” too, is a subjective concept and no one ever said a fair price is easy to pay.

Cover of A Song Below Water, by Bethany C. Morrow. Two teenage girls stand back to back, close enough to lean against each other. Their long hair, in twists and coils, floats upward -- the background is light blue, with a few bubbles floating up with the girls' hair. The girl on the left has light blue eyeshadow and a light blue earring that looks like a chandelier. The girl on the right also has blue eyeshadow, with a small gold hoop earring and a streak of blue scales and glitter on her cheek. Both girls have light gray-green seaweed woven into their hair.

I debated whether to include A Song Below Water, by Bethany C. Morrow, in such a goofy list (it definitely doesn’t feel appropriate to give this story a Scare-o-meter rating), because it’s actually a lot more serious than I expected and I absolutely don’t want to belittle the messages the story sends (plus, I haven’t finished it yet).  It’s one of the most seamlessly blended urban fantasies I’ve read so far, fusing magic and real world politics to show what would happen if supernatural people openly existed in the U.S.

This story isn’t just about mermaids performing in contemporary West Coast Ren faires; it’s about mermaids who have to deal with a dangerous combination of racism and anti-superhuman fear.  After all, it only seems to be the Black sirens whom this version of America attacks and condemns.

I do want to acknowledge, though, that this is the fourth book I’ve read that features a mermaid performer — and the second one in which the performer is actually magical.  Effie, a.k.a. Euphemia the Mer, spends two weeks every year performing with her mother, “Minerva the Chosen,” at the Portland Renaissance Faire.  This year, now that her mother is gone, Effie is headlining, having finally gained entry into the sacred society of the Hidden Scales.

Particularly cool detail:  Apparently, in this world, people actually write fan-fiction about their favorite Faire performers.  Effie often reads stories about herself and her on-stage lover, Elric the blacksmith.

Particularly uncool detail:  Apparently, many of the fanfic writers try to either whitewash Euphemia or just ignore her physical features other than her tail.  Lame!

Cover of The Moon is Up, by Mariko Tamaki. Against a light blue background, you see a large manilla-yellow crescent moon (it takes up most of the cover), with four girls sliding down the round edge and a fifth girl in front, running toward the viewer. From the top are Ripley, a spikey-haired goofball with dark hair; April, who has long red hair pulled back by a white ribbon and is holding onto Ripley's leg; Mal, a punk rocker with half of her black hair shaved and the rest flopping shoulder-length over her left side...she's falling head-first down the moon's left edge; Molly, a frontier-style girl with a long blond braid and a raccoon curled up like a hat on her head; and Jo, the rugged scientist with shoulder-length dark hair and a light olive peacoat over a red sweater vest and dark grey jeans.

Scare-o-meter:  1 out of 10 points to Gingerbread House for the “Hansel and Glitter” joke 😀

Finally, if you’re looking for something more comically spooky, I highly recommend The Moon is Up, a Lumberjanes companion novel by Mariko Tamaki.  Ok, it only technically counts because it involves a contest that results in “a carnival of decorated cabins,” but hear me out!  The story involves a three-day sci-fi festival with the following features:

  • Games:  Scavenger hunts are a game!  Decorating contests are a game!  Oddly athletic trivia games, anyone???
  • Rides:  One of the cabins is decorated with Saturn rings made out of miniature train tracks with “little moon trains chugging along…”  How fun does that sound?!
  • Circus tricks:  Everyone’s favorite chef Kzzyzy creates festival-worthy food with “an acrobatic flurry of pots and pans.”  CARNIVALS HAVE ACROBATS, AMIRITE???

Other fun things:

  • Mal used to have a fluffy stuffed drum named “BANG!”
  • Jo thinks of the stars visible from Earth as “space ghosts.”
  • There’s a co-plot involving moon pirate mice and the cheese puns are fromage-tastic!
  • One of the games involves solving that Labyrinth riddle with the one guy who always tells the truth and the one who always lies, and I STILL don’t get it, but HUZZAH!
  • Bahahahaha, I am ABSOLUTELY going to teach my friends how to play “The Moon is Up.”

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So!  What are some of your most memorable/uncanny carnival experiences (vicarious or real)?  Any exhibits you could have sworn were genuinely supernatural?

I, for one, am adding a few festivals I learned about at MerCon to my literary bucket list.  I think this is the Coastal Carnivale mentioned in the Representation Panel, and Divine Sirene’s Psychedelic Circus sounds totally far out!


  1. Hmm, I do love things that are comically spooky. And I’m glad to hear more about the Lundy book in the Wayward Children series.

    • Lundy’s awesome! She really got a raw deal in Every Heart a Doorway. Did you know there’s a new Wayward book coming in January? It’s about a world of green pastures and hooved beings. My inner horse-crazy 13-year-old is already breathing in the fresh hay and alfalfa.

  2. I haven’t read all of the Carniepunk Anthology, but I’ve read Jennifer Estep’s story in it and remember it being action-oriented urban fantasy with just a bit of creepiness. I enjoyed it–but I’d already read four or five of the books in her Elemental Assassin series when I picked it up, so that’s not a surprise. 😉

  3. So many fun stories! I didn’t used to think it was cool to talk about Halloween this early, but this year, I’ve become a fan. This post really hit the spot!

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