Well, I guess Friday the 13th couldn’t get bad enough soon enough. My daughter just emailed me to let me know that Katherine Dunn, author of the one-of-a-kind 1989 masterpiece Geek Love, died in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday, age 70, from lung cancer. Thus Dunn, who smoked like a chimney, met the same fate as the wonderful British novelist Angela Carter, author of one of the other two great circus dystopias, Nights at the Circus (the third being Ray Bradbury’s skin crawler Something Wicked this Way Comes).
Dunn emerged from a childhood of abuse and family instability. She fictionalized much of that in her early novels, Attic and Truck. Despite her difficult times as a young single mother struggling to support herself and children through alternately bartending, working as a boxing reporter, waitressing or as a part time journalist she emerged to pen one of the great American cult novels. Her tale of the Binewski family, mutants whose ringmaster patriarch and chicken geek matriarch created their own freak show by ingesting all sorts of teratogens during the mother’s pregnancies, reads like it’s mining archetypes even Jung would have kept locked in his basement. Their most imposing creation is the phocomeliac Arturo the Aqua-Boy, founder and leader of a cult of self-mutilators named after himself whose members are noted for their elective amputations and pet maggots. Terrifying while sickly hilarious, richly imagined in baroque detail and beautifully written, the novel has gone through so many printings and “anniversary editions” since its initial publication that I’ve lost track of them. I’ve often thought of it as a carnival version of Blood Meridian – or, perhaps, some ungodly crossbreed of Blood Meridian and Tod Browning’s Freaks. In any case I would go so far as to call it the funniest horror novel ever written.
Tim Burton, speaking of movies, had serious ideas about turning the novel into a film, and he probably would have been the only one who could have pulled it orf. He went so far as to stage with MFA students from Florida State University’s drama department a partial reading of a script he’d worked on for a film version. It was open to the public but I didn’t find out about it until the day after it was held. Damn it. That was fourteen years ago so I guess Burton has disabused himself of the vanity that the project was do-able. Too bad. It seemed to me like the perfect vehicle for Emo Phillips’ cinema debut.
Dunn’s “day job” for much of her adult life was as a boxing stringer for the Associated Press and columnist for a Portland newspaper. She hadn’t been working on her anticipated new novel for several years while she struggled to remain functional through radiation, chemotherapy and surgery and word I’m hearing through the literary grapevine is that she didn’t leave enough of it to be publishable. That’s a shame, but at least her suffering is over now and she’s left us with this one towering monument to the human imagination.