Getting something you want in life — and what you have to give in exchange for it — can range from the maddening to the figuratively mundane.
Start with the greatest tradeoff in literary history — Thomas Mann’s classic German novel Doctor Faustus, in which the protagonist, seeking more from his unfulfilled existence, sells his soul to the devil. Then switch to those many people of cliché fame who greedily accept a “free lunch,” only to find their sumptuous repast was nothing of the sort because there’s no such thing!
Now let’s settle someplace in between — Kathryn Ann Kingsley’s positively macabre The Contortionist, in which the evil and sensual Simon, a.k.a. the Puppeteer, asks the troubled and physically aching Cora Glass, “What would you trade … to never have to wake up in agony ever again?”
Cora’s answer uttered softly to herself: “Everything.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Cora, a small-town girl with a humdrum job, passes the long-abandoned Harrow Faire fairground and amusement park on her daily commute. Long-abandoned, that is, until the day she drives by and it magically appears to have been revamped, reopened and totally vibrant — a rehab that couldn’t possibly have occurred overnight.
Trying to understand how this happened, she researches Harrow Faire for news of the reopening, only to come up empty-handed.
When she enters the park with her friends and hordes of other patrons, what on the surface appears to be typical attractions, rides and food is anything but. She is given the choice to enter through the main gate or via a skull-faced entrance for free. She chooses the skull for free, soon to find there’s no such thing as a free lunch! Strange things begin to happen as she plunges into total darkness. And it only gets weirder.
FREEDOM AT THE RISK OF POSSESSION
Somehow she teeters on falling under the spell of Simon the Puppeteer, one of 22 “family members” in the Faire. By virtue of entering through the skull gate, she gives up a piece of her personality to him. “The Faire had taken it from her and he had been the one who received it. It was such an odd thing to get used to — being fed little pieces of people by the Faire.”
He wants to possess Cora and, unbeknownst to her at the time, eliminate her suffering from a chronic illness by turning her into one of his “human puppets.” Cora has been warned to steer clear of Simon, but some combination of her station in life, loneliness, a physical attraction to him, and his pledge to set her free has her wobbling over what to do. “His fingers on her shoulder spread, caressing her. ‘But you’re safe with me.’ Says the shark to the fish.”
The Faire apparently has other ideas for Cora.
The Contortionist is Book One of an ambitiously planned series for which several volumes have already been published. “I have always loved the circus. I have always adored a carnival,” says author Kingsley, whose crisp writing style seamlessly advances the plot. “I suppose it was only a matter of time before I combined my two loves — circus and horror — into a series. They go so well together, don’t they?”
“Whether it’s the freak shows, or the clowns, or the mirrored funhouse of a carnival, there’s an inherently eerie quality to the traveling acts of yore. It always begs for a story that’s somehow deeper, somehow more sinister.”
With The Contortionist, that story is well on its way.