H.P. Woods spent a fair few summers propping up the bar at Coney Island’s Sideshows downing Coronas with her friends and sometimes buying a round for Michael the Tattooed Man. The granddaughter of a mad inventor and a sideshow magician, she read for a degree in theatre studies and took a series of girl-gotta-make-rent jobs in New York City before she settled into the world of publishing. Instead of making things disappear, she makes books of all shapes and sizes and has now written her first novel, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet (Sourcebooks Landmark) which was published earlier this month.
Woods went back to Coney Island for inspiration for her story, setting it in May 1904, when the resorts newest amusement park, Dreamland, has just opened with the hope of making back the cost of its investment. many times over. As crowds continued to flock to seaside resorts in their thousands, Kitty Hayward and her mother arrive in the city by steamer from South Africa. When Kitty’s mother takes ill, the hotel doctor sends Kitty to Manhattan to fetch some special medicine but a series of unfortunate events leaves Kitty alone in the city with nobody to turn to except the denizens of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet.
Cyclops from “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008” at the Brooklyn Museum
Magruder’s is home to a forlorn flea circus, a handful of disgruntled Unusuals, and a mad Uzbek scientist. Kitty is taken under their wing and with their help she endeavours to find out what happened to her mother only to run into problems when a plague hits Coney Island and the resort is placed under quarantine. As the once-glamorous resort is abandoned to the freaks, anarchists, and madmen, is Kitty’s missing mother the least of their problems?
Coney Island is as much a character in the novel as Kitty and the Unusuals. Once the largest theme park in the USA (between 1880 and World War Two) Coney Island drew crowds of several million visitors per year as they flocked to the three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park based there. They promenaded on its iconic boardwalk, congregated at Nathans HotDogs and Childs Restaurant to people-watch and shoot the breeze and soaked up the sun and sea air on the beach, just a few miles away from the hot, dusty and crowded streets of New York City.
The amusements attracted entrepreneurs, opportunists and carneys and their innovation and imagination birthed a new age in theme park design. The earliest carousels (as we know them today) were built in Coney Island, alongside what is widely considered the first modern roller coaster in 1884, the Gravity Switchback Railway. As night fell, over 250,000 electric bulbs lit up the skies at Luna Park which was soon nicknamed Electric Eden after its opening in 1903 and crowds gathered inside Lilliputian Village which was staffed by three hundred dwarfs.
Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet has been described as “gloriously original, colorful and alive…. a magnificent riot of unique turn-of-the-century characters…fools and sages, snakes and saviors” and a “cracking Coney Island roller coaster of an adventure, full of marvelous, colorful, and unapologetically authentic characters and a bright, breathless debut….” so I asked HP Woods about the book and her inspiration. Here’s what she has to say.
Can you tell us about your family background of inventors and magicians?
Arthur F Poole was the inventor in the family and his main contribution to the world was an electric clock, which he spent the majority of his life and fortune perfecting… only to have a better ones be invented by others in the years that followed. His son, my actual grandfather, was something of an inventor as well, and he was the only one who knew how to make what he called “a little doodad” that was required to make his father’s clocks run properly. When he died in the 1970s, the little doodad went with him, and it is nearly impossible to make the family clocks run properly now.
So it is, if not a sad story, certainly one tinged with a certain irony and/or absurdity.
Theron Wood was a traveling sideshow magician in the 1920s and 1930s. He gave it up to raise a family in central New York, although he did still perform from time to time. My 11-year-old daughter is actually quite good at a basic coin trick that has been passed down in the family. It’s a shame he never got to meet her… although I’m told that he was absolutely determined that women should not do magic, ever. Or wear trousers. So, perhaps it all worked out for the best.
An advertisement of Theron’s, from when he settled down in NYC.
Is Magruders a story that has always been there, waiting to be told?
Ha! In a sense, Magruder’s is a story that has ALREADY been told! By which I mean, the central premise—girl and mother check into hotel, mother gets sick and is “disappeared” by said hotel to cover up her dire illness—is apparently an “urban legend” that predates me by some time. I was not aware of this when I was writing. I came across the story in a book called The People’s Almanac, where it is presented as fact. I’ve since been shown other versions of the story in other books, all likewise presented as fact.
In my blissful ignorance, I became very curious about what had become of the girl. As there was no information available (which makes sense in retrospect, the story being false!). I decided I had to write my own ending. I set it in Coney Island because I have an abiding love for the place.
Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island, 1938. Reputedly, he could rotate his head 180 degrees.
Tell us about your research process…
For research, I read a lot about the history of sideshows; I had studied them a bit while getting a theater degree in college, but I really delved into it much more when I was writing the book.
I read a lot about the plague. Two books about the Black Death, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, were incredibly important to me. I also read about plague epidemics that hit San Francisco and Honolulu in the early 1900s. Many events in my book, such as the spineless government cover-ups and scapegoating of immigrants, did actually occur, just on the West Coast rather than New York. (Trivia moment: the Governor of California was thrown out of office in a scandal related to the fact that he spent two years lying about the existence of plague in his state.)
I’m very envious about your time spent at Coney Island and in the theatre. Were you actively storing up stories and vignettes back then?
I never worked at Coney Island, I just lazed about a great deal. But I did spend almost all my time until the age of about 24 in or around theater: amateur productions, student productions, professional, whatever I could do. When I needed a job in high school, I got one in the box office of the Hartford Stage Company, which is quite a respected regional theater here in the US. After college I worked at places like the now-defunct (not my fault!) Circle Repertory Company and New York Theater Workshop.
The playwright Lanford Wilson once stole my pen, so I’ve got that going for me.
My point is, as a writer I connected to my sideshow characters via that background, as fellow theater-types. Not as biological oddities or weirdos. And I think that does give the book a different angle on “freaks” than many other books have. I don’t see the characters in Magruder’s as exotic in any way. They are exoticized by others, for sure, and that’s a big deal in terms of how they live. But I see them as regular showfolk trying to make a living and get by in an often-hostile world.
For instance, Zeph, a character who had his legs amputated after an accident, has to go around either on his hands or in a special vehicle. There are little details about the gloves he has to wear, the handles that are bolted into furniture so he can climb around and reach things, and his utter shock at a girl ever flirting with him. But all of this is discussed in passing. It’s not, you know, Here Is A Disabled Character Let’s Discuss That. It’s not exotic or weird, nor is it romantic or tragic. It’s just part of his regular day.
The character of Rosalind is genderfluid but again, it’s just a fact of life. There’s no “coming out” narrative here. In fact, Rosalind drops his boyfriend, Enzo, because Enzo hesitates to be “out” in public and Ros ain’t having it.
The character of Kitty, who is the newcomer to Magruder’s and therefore the reader’s surrogate, is just expected to catch up with all this. It’s normal life at the Cabinet.
Can the reader seek out their version of Magruder or is this a world and lifestyle that is completely gone? Our opinions about what makes a curiosity might have changed…
Well the Coney Island Sideshow is alive and well, that’s for sure. In fact, yours truly will be reading from Magruder’s there on July 9, mark your calendars please. They even have a sideshow school where you can take classes in fire-eating and banner-painting. Meanwhile, the World of Wonders Sideshow still tours the US during the summer.
So I don’t think the tradition has completely gone away—although it is, as you hint, far more niche than it used to be. One positive development, though, is that sideshows are much more performance-based now. In other words, sideshows involve showing off weird skills, rather than exploiting biological differences.
Coney Island itself has had something of a resurgence of late. New amusement rides, new restaurants, even a hotel going in finally. But of course, that always sets up a different conflict, of the preservationists versus the gentrifiers. By my nature I tend to side with the preservationists, but not all change is bad, either. I’m glad that Coney Island doesn’t look like “The Warriors ” anymore.
How challenging is it to balance the readers need for space to create his own image of Magruder’s curiosity cabinet and your obvious pleasure in describing it to your readers? I could have happily read a straight ten page description of the attraction as a section in itself but other readers seem to prefer more space.
This is kind of a dream-come-true question for me, because I think of myself as being terrible at description! As a reader I guiltily skim it. I view myself—I think because of my theater background—as primarily a dialogue girl. But since this isn’t a script, I knew I had to try to put the reader in the specific location. I worked really hard at the description but never thought it was good enough.
I will say, it was hard to stop myself piling on more weird exhibits, just because they are fun to invent and/or discover. Just to give you one tiny example, there really is a book called Ought I Be Baptized? I saw it at a tag sale, and it must have been 500 pages at least. You wouldn’t think that query would need such a thorough investigation but somebody clearly did.
But at a certain point I just wanted people to start talking! So, returning to your actual question, I think I just followed my own instincts as a fairly impatient reader. Don’t bother describing the furniture, gimme an argument.
I’ve always been interested in the tension that exists between what fascinates us and what repels us. The Victorian freak show was the incarnation of that and although it no longer exists in such a straightforward way, some might say we have its modern-day equivalent ie Jerry Springer, reality shows like The Kardashians and Donald Trump. What do you think about this? Are we less honest and self-aware about our need to ‘other’ some people than the Victorians were?
My initial reaction is to deny any connection between my beloved Unusuals and Trump! But I take your point. However I am not so sure if the situation can be generalized as us being “more” aware or less. In fact researching this book kind of led me to the supposition that humans really don’t change all that much.
Sideshows made their money by pinging whatever raw nerves society happened to have at the time. Studying their history, you can see that very similar acts keep appearing and reappearing, but with adjustments based on whatever was bugging people at the moment.
So for instance, there’s a famous act usually called Spidora or similar, in which a woman pretends to be part woman & part spider. It’s an old act. But what interested me was, the cause of the spider transformation changes over time. Originally it would have been something simple like, a bite from an especially mean spider. So in that instance, the uncontrollable natural world is the enemy. But later, “atomic radiation” was the culprit. In the 1980s, that was adjusted to “toxic waste.”
In Magruder’s, you get to see Rosalind’s performance as a half-and-half, meaning one side male, one side female. It’s an act whose popularity tracks pretty closely with the suffrage movement. In the same era, you’d have cartoons in the newspaper showing “a suffragette at home,” where her husband is wearing a frilly apron as he cleans with one hand and holds a baby with another. So there was tremendous gender anxiety at the time, and it was turned into performance at the sideshow.
Anyway, it’s not hard to “read” Trump in this light. He is performing hyper-masculine aggression at a time when a certain segment of Americans are feeling emasculated—by the post-Fordist economy, by globalization, by feminism. By the very fact that a black man has led the free world for 7.5 years. Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable.
I honestly don’t know enough about the Kardashians to get a read on them in this way, but I guarantee you there is some social itch that they are scratching, just like Spidora did back in her day.
Who are you reading and what other books in the Magruder theme might you recommend to readers newly interested in this subject?
I am reading More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, which has pretty much nothing to do with Magruder’s, but you asked! There are loads of novels about sideshows and Coney Island, most of which I avoided reading because I didn’t want to copy them. But Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things is supposed to be excellent, as is Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. (Aside to that one damn reviewer who dismissed me as “derivative” of Hoffman: I started my book several years before Hoffman’s came out. And indeed I had myself a good long cry when I found out about hers, because I was certain all my work was for nothing. Humph!)
The Platonic Ideal of a “freak” book is of course Geek Love. It is a Modern Classic that means a great deal to a great many people. It’s not some dumb old commercial “beach read” like mine: Geek Love is respected as Great Literature.
I hate the bloody thing. I can’t stand how profoundly, aggressively ugly and cruel all the freaks are. (Yes, I understand that it is social satire. I “get” it, I just don’t “want” it.) Jean-Luc Godard said that in order to criticize a film you need to make another film… And you could definitely interpret my book as a response to Geek Love in that sense.
And finally, on my website I have a page called Magruder’s Library, which lists the books I read as research. So there you’ll find the real history of Coney Island, sideshows, plagues, and all manner of other oddities.
Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet is out now.
Michael Dolan / Flickr: Coney Island in 2010