Henry Darger, Detective: on Curious Toys, by Elizabeth Hand

A disclaimer: I’ve known Liz Hand since we both took a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing course at the Writers Center in Bethesda, back when she lived in the DC Area.

Another disclaimer: I’ve been into Henry Darger’s work for almost as long. Part of my research for A SPECTRAL HUE included a visit to the Intuit Center for Outsider Art museum in Chicago (which houses a large collection of Darger’s work). Ultimately, my Outsider Artist novel is very different from Liz Hand’s book, with melds together the thriller/crime genre with historical fiction. But my knowledge of Darger marginalia made reading this book extra-pleasurable.

Curious Toys navigates genre modalities deftly, hopping from the viewpoint of a creepy killer of little girls, to the police officer in pursuit, and, scenes with Darger, who suffers from some unidentified mental illness. 

But this is ultimately the story of Pin, a fourteen year old girl who dresses as a boy to help her move through the various milieus. Both Pin and her mother live in a cardboard shack at the edge of Riverview, a giant amusement park where Pin’s mother works as a fortune teller named Madame Zanto. Both of them have suffered a fairly recent tragedy: the disappearance of Pin’s special needs younger sibling Abriana. Pin spends the time when her mother working as a drug mule, shuttling marijuana cigarettes between Riverview and the silent film studio, Essanay Studios. During her off time, she wanders the amusement park, which is also frequented by a local oddball—Henry Darger. The two of them—separately—witness a horrific crime, one that shares a similarity to her sister’s disappearance.

The novel is a thriller, but it also operates as a coming-of-age novel. Pin is at least lesbian (if not non-binary) and the crafting of her sexual identity makes for some of the most moving moments in the novel. Curious Toys also is a historical novel, with Ragtime/Zelig-like cameos of historical personages beyond Darger; Charlie Chaplin and Wallace Beery have small roles. There’s an atmosphere of verisimilitude in the novel, rich in description of turn-of-the-century Chicago in all of its grime and glory. The book shines and becomes luminous when Hand describes Darger’s secret magnum opus and explores the relationship between Pin and the famed artist, who are both misfits in their own way.