When I was eleven my family which consisted of my mother, three sisters and my mother’s friend and her daughter went to a carnival, I don’t believe it was my first time at a carnival but as it turned out it was my first time that I got to venture out by myself at a carnival. As my family waited in line for the carousel I ducked out of line and easily lied to them that I wanted to go to the midway and check out the games. My mother reluctantly agreed and told me to be careful and then warned me about strangers. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that with all the carnies running around “strange” was a common occurrence in our chosen family entertainment.
When I got to the midway, I quickly walked past all the games, candy vendors, food vendors and teenage boys trying to win the hearts of their girlfriends by winning cheap stuffed toys at games that were clearly rigged to take the money of the customers and fatten the pockets of the owners. My destination was at the end of the midway, past the safety of the lighted booths and tucked away in the darkness near the tractor trailers, RV’s, and generators. As I passed the lights of the last booth the barker there yelled to me “Son, there’s nothing back that way, come on over here and try your hand at winning a stuffed bear.” I ignored him and stepped into the darkness.
As I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light, I noticed the sound of the midway seemed to dim as well. It didn’t take before I made out the dim yellow lights shining on a sign that read “Freakshow!”. Standing under the sign was a large man wearing a tattered tuxedo jacket and an even more tattered top hat. In his hand he was holding a megaphone and he looked as if he had led a life on the edge of society and the wrinkles on his face showed little remorse at the things he had done. I slowly approached him and when he saw me he scowled down at my small frame and said “Get outta here kid. This ain’t for you.”
I looked at the sign near the entrance that said “Entry Fee $1.00”. I reached in my hand and pulled out three one dollar bills, separated one from the others and held it up to him while trying not to let my hand shake from fear. “Entry is a buck, here is my buck.” I said, trying to sound brave.
“I told you to get.” He said without even acknowledging my money.
“I want to see the Freakshow. Here’s my dollar, let me in.”
The grizzled man shrugged his shoulders, reached out with his hand and snatched my dollar and nodded over his shoulder. “Go ahead, but don’t blame me for any nightmares. I warned you.”
As he pushed my dollar into a beat up wooden box I noticed that the hand he grabbed my dollar with was missing a thumb and a pinky. “You only have three fingers.” I said.
“Yeah, thanks for noticing kid. Now get lost.”
“None of your business… you going in to the show or do I have to kick your ass to get you outta my sight.”
I quickly ducked passed him and made my way inside the tent. When I got inside I saw a large room with several rows of wooden folding chairs. Some of the chairs were occupied, but most weren’t. I took a seat in a row that had no one sitting in it and looked up towards the stage. I didn’t look at any of the other occupants of the tent not because I didn’t want to but because I was nervous and a bit scared. I don’t know how long I sat there but it couldn’t have been long before the lights on the stage brightened and a short, chubby man came up on stage and began to explain all of what we were about to see. I ignored him. I wanted to see what sort of people the carnival called freaks.
When the man finished talking, everyone stood up and followed the MC to a curtained entrance. I was the last person in line and as I ducked behind the curtain I wasn’t sure whether or not I had made the right decision. What I saw was amazing and sad all at the same time. As we walked up to each stall to view the freak housed within, I was stunned by how sad and emotionless the whole event. The bearded lady was slowly brushing her facial hair, the fatman was eating hot dogs, the strong man was lifting weights, the contortionist was bending her body in odd shapes and there were many, many more.
Those images have stuck with me all my life, so much so that whenever I could I would go to a carnival and pay for the freakshow.
But now, in todays watered down society you can’t really find a freak show to visit. However, I’ve discovered a new place to go to see people who look as if their souls have been sucked right out of them but this time it’s under the harsh incandescent light in a room filled with fan boys and fan girls. These places now are called “Conventions” and they are usually held in hotels with large meeting rooms and patterned carpet that gives a person a headache and lights so bright that one couldn’t even begin to think about trying to hide a blemish on their skin.
I’ve been to six conventions over the past four years and each time it’s the same. Vendors are trying to sell movies, photos of movie stars, action figures, jewelry, costumes and of course books. I go for the books.
But every time I go, I am inevitably accompanied by people dressed up as their favorite movie character, cartoon character and occasionally their favorite serial killer. I don’t dress up. I like horror books, fantasy books and science fiction books and when I find out a writer whom I like is attending one of these conventions, I try to make a point to go there, give the writer my money for their book and have them sign it for me. I also try to make some sort of contact with them. I try to let them know that I like what they do, that what they are doing makes a difference and that no matter how small that difference is, it is at least a difference in a world filled with indifference.
Most of the time I get the practiced smile and nod from the writer as they hand their book to me and I can tell they are either too tired to hold a conversation or that they are wondering when they will be able to take a break. I feel sorry for them because the look in their eyes reminds me of the look in the eyes of all the people I’ve seen in carnival freakshows over the years. It’s a look that says that they would rather be almost anywhere than where they are and that they are doing this job out of an obligation to their publisher.
Now, not all writers are like this, I have to say, the few that I’ve met outside of the convention circuit are quite nice and have lots of personality. Personality that during a convention seems to get worn thin. That’s when the soul of the person leaves their eyes. Yet they continue to do it. I know they love their fans and are grateful for every one that comes to see them but after endless hours of sitting in a room filled with loud screams and answering the same question over and over again, I can see how it wears them down to a soulless nub.
It’s a funny thing, I’ve been to author signings more than conventions and the singular singings are even worse than the conventions. When I’ve asked about how many books they’ve sold the answer is usually in the single digits. Those answers make me want to buy out their entire stock just so they have a good day. But of course, I can’t.
So, where is all this going? Well, since you’ve stuck with me this far, I’ll give you the answer…
If, in the future, you happen to see an advertisement for a book signing by an author, and if you have time off, please go see them. Buy their book and have them sign it for you. Even if the subject matter is not of your liking, just try to read it. Imagine if you will some of the “A” list writers like Stephen King went to a book signing when he was just starting out and sold one book and then decided to become a morning drive time radio dj. A lot of us would not have five shelves of books in our house now.
Ok, this blog has gone on way too long and I need to get in out of the cold. Have a great week. Go buy a book.