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July 8, 2009

Deborah Noyes: Are You Odd? Step Up!

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LinkIn the vein of previous anthologies GOTHIC and THE RESTLESS DEAD, Deborah Noyes's latest compilation of short stories is SIDESHOW: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical. In today's guest blog, she explains the appeal of "freaks" in circuses and carnivals and explores the idea that being different can be something to embrace and celebrate, instead of something to hide.

We had a more catch-all theme in mind when we started work on SIDESHOW (the anthology was called A Cabinet of Curiosities at the time). I’m a sucker for great showmen like P. T. Barnum and Harry Houdini, and invited contributors to submit stories about “conjurers and ventriloquists, necromancers and illusionists, spirit mediums and Siamese twins, oddities of science and purveyors of educated fleas.” But when the submissions rolled in, most were very literally set in circus and carnival sideshows, which says a lot about the hold these places have on our collective imagination, and on writers and artists especially.

What also emerged is this idea of being a “freak,” which in our culture can mean any variation at all on being different, on living outside the main. We all feel that we don't fit in sometimes, but if walking into the high-school cafeteria with a raging zit or a bad haircut can trigger your adrenaline --- make you feel like you’re trapped onstage in a sideshow --- imagine for a moment life as a bearded girl or a dwarf or shape shifter.

I think part of our fascination with freaks and these settings stems from the longing we all have at some point in life to, at least metaphorically, "run away and join the circus." The narrator in Matt Phelan's graphic short “Jargo!” explains that "circuses are famous for being the sort of place you can hide out in." They offer refuge. As a freak, you not only belong but are celebrated for your differences --- however startling they may be --- for what makes you novel or unique. Matt’s story is so heartbreaking because even the circus has trouble welcoming his main character; there is no refuge for him, which is a terribly lonely way to live (but on the other hand, the story points out, if just one person can get beyond your jarring exterior, look into your soul and say, I see you, there’s hope).

The other thing about the sideshow is that everyone is wildly, exaggeratedly, enthusiastically different. It’s a topsy-turvy world where anything goes. There’s an audience, sure, and that audience may gawk, but like any performer, the freak holds power in the exchange, puts her or himself out there, boldly and purposely, and says, "Yeah. Take a look. Here I am.” Freaks play unabashedly to our curiosity, good or bad, and our sense of wonder. Back in the 1800s, in fact, before medical science demoted them from “marvels” to pathological specimens, congenital freaks, like their fellow novelty acts, enjoyed celebrity status as America’s most popular form of entertainment.

Many of the characters in these ten stories take charge of whatever it is they’ve inherited from chance --- be it a feminine beard or a bizarre bread starter --- and exploit it, rather than be exploited by or because of it. They own and embrace their oddities, and draw strength from them, which is a great message, I think. One we can all learn from.

-- Deborah Noyes