Sturgeon was a unique writer in his time; I think he’d still be in a minority in these days. His work barely touches on science fiction; I think it’s more appropriately categorized as weird fiction although I seem to be a lone voice. Sturgeon does not employ technological advances, nor do his characters magically transport to the moon or Mars. He likes to explore what it means to be human right here on Earth. This was his debut novel.
Horty was eight-years-old when he was caught in the school bleachers doing something disgusting. It was something he’d always done. But his adoptive parents, the Bluetts, had no empathy or understanding. Horty had always been unwanted. So when his stepfather’s discipline went too far and he lost three fingers, he’d had enough so he ran away to join the circus (actually it was a carnival but I was too tempted by the old story trope.) The only thing he took with him was an old broken toy that he had acquired in the orphanage; a toy that seemed to be linked to him.
Adopted into the fold, he spent several years protected by members of the freak show; principally Zena, a female dwarf. And here’s where it starts to be weird: Zena warns him that to be accepted by the carnival’s owner (and to remain safe) he had to be her female cousin. And so he becomes a girl, and is so convincing that no one ever questions it. There is no evidence that he was anything but a normal little boy and yet, for the years with the carnival, he never grew taller and always presented as a girl.
The carnival is run by Pierre, known as Maneater to the carnies. Zena is his only confidant; although, considering how he treats her, she seems more a prisoner. But she stays there by choice; she has come to realize she is the only person Maneater ever really talks to. And because of that, she is the only one to keep watch on him…just in case. And she knows that Maneater has been looking for something for years, longer than Horty has been alive; and she suspects that Horty is exactly what Maneater has been searching for. When Horty had arrived at the carny, he was still suffering from the three amputated fingers and Maneater, having been a doctor in years past, treated and bandaged him. Through Zena’s manipulation, he never thought to ask to see Horty’s hand again. Had he done so, the jig would’ve been up. Horty had no way to hide the healthy regrown fingers and Maneater would have known him for what he really was. So Zena sent Horty away when the day came that Maneater had demanded to examine the hand. Horty must’ve been about twenty-years-old at that point and still looked and behaved like a female dwarf.
Horty’s adoptive father, Judge Bluett, had become a nasty corrupt old man who had his sights set on young and beautiful Kay; who was the only child who hadn’t laughed at Horty when he was eight-years-old. Kay and the old Judge are sitting in a bar when the Judge informs the young woman of his desires and his leverage: he could stop her from inheriting money that she plans to use to put her younger brother through medical school. When the Judge left for the restroom, a strange young man advised her that she should immediately leave town and never look back; pushing $300 into her hand. But he had one request: that Kay should act the shy bride and tell the Judge that she’d be ready to acquiesce but not until the following evening.
The following evening the old Judge was pleasantly surprised when a more mature and enticing Kay met him at the bar. But after they arrived at his hidden apartment, he was more than terrified when the changed woman threatened him, hinting at the hurt he’d dealt to someone before, and then proceeding to chop off three of her fingers.
Years later all these players come together when an older Kay, remembering her childhood playmate, came to the carnival searching for Horty. As coincidence would have it, old Judge Bluett was also there to ask some advice of Maneater and was horrified into speechlessness when he spied the same young woman but with all of her fingers intact. His recitation of those events coalesced in Maneater’s mind who instantly understood who and what he’d sheltered in his carny for all those years. Maneater then employed his considerable hypnotic talents and sent his freaks to find Zena and Horty.
And this is where it all came together. Sturgeon had skillfully inserted small bits of information throughout the story that now came to make sense. We, the readers, finally understand what Maneater had learned about aliens living on Earth, how he planned to use them to destroy the Earth, and just what Zena had intended when she took over the care and tutelage of a small boy. I know, I know…I haven’t really explained anything. But if I do more, you might not read this book. And if you are a lover of classic SF or just dipping your toes, you need to include Sturgeon in your TBR list. Sturgeon didn’t write that many novels but he did write reams of short stories.
As I said earlier, Sturgeon delighted in exploring what being human meant. He toyed with all sorts of variations decades earlier than mainstream America could’ve accepted. His characters ranged across the map of human disabilities and in this book he actually approached transgender; albeit in a shape-shifting format. He really just skimmed the surface when describing Horty as a female but always referring to him as “he.” He couldn’t have done more in the 1950s; describing Horty as actually ‘being’ female or how he/she felt as a female would have meant this book would not have been published. I admire Sturgeon’s curiosity and fearlessness. And his storytelling is very gripping. His prose is spare but not dry. And while we don’t get into a character’s mind too much, we are still able to empathize with his pain. Mostly, I read Sturgeon for the chance to see ordinary people become extraordinary which the rest of the world might label as freaks or aberrations. ~~ Catherine Book
For more titles by Theodore Sturgeon click here