CARNIVAL OF HORRORS by John C Adams
Call me a sucker for a good freak show but as soon as the posters go up, I’m already dropping the pennies into my wife’s old Kilner jar to save for the tickets. It was the same when Professor Crackpot’s Carnival of Horrors rolled into town. They were a new bunch so pretty much the whole of Winfield turned out to see the show on the first night.
Our family filed in with our neighbours and friends, and found some good seats right at the front. I’m tall so Andi let me have the aisle seat. Our daughter Cassandra sat on my wife’s other side and our son Chuck on the far side of his sister. I folded my legs in one after the other until all six of them were tucked in neatly. The back ones folded over my shoulders. I let the gaze of my thousand eyes flicker across the tent.
I frowned. Something just wasn’t right here. I nudged Andi. She playfully dug me back with both her left arms.
“D’you think the circus ring’s a little, well, small?”
I tried to lower my voice but Wave, our neighbour, picked up on my whisper from the far side of the tent and shouted over for me to be more precise if something was bothering me.
I rubbed my hands together. Then I rested my back legs against my shoulders, one after the other. I hunched over and hoped that no one would press me further. I just wanted to scuttle away into a dark corner and curl up.
Andi distracted everyone by picking up our son and throwing him into the air. Chuck isn’t called the Boy Ball for nothing. Soon he was bouncing off the canvas roof of the tent. Andi caught him with both her left arms and tossed him into the air again. Then she did the same with her right arms. Chuck was giggling. Nothing raises gloomy spirits like the sound of a child’s laughter. I unfolded my arms and legs, and wiggled all eight of them. Chuck bounced into my arms and I cradled him in my hairy limbs.
“Septimus! Let the boy breathe!”
I relinquished my hold and Chuck bounced back to his seat. I leant over to ask Cassandra if she could foretell anything about the spectacle to come. She closed her eyes and went into a trance. Her eyelids flickered. She rocked back and forth in her seat. Her expression darkened and she cried out in anguish.
“Dad, I never saw anything so horrible. Can we leave, please?”
I looked at my daughter oddly. I was about to suggest to Andi that we duck out when our neighbour caught Cassandra’s words.
“Well, shoot, girl!” Wave called back across the tent. “Isn’t that just what we’ve paid all our pennies to see? Sounds like we’ll be getting value for money out of Professor Crackpot’s Carnival of Horrors!”
The ringmaster strode out from behind the curtain and cracked his whip. His strong voice filled the tent.
“To quote an old friend: No new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace. With that in mind, let our show commence!”
Polite applause rippled around the audience. I shrunk down in my seat and wrapped my legs around me. I snuck a glance at Andi. My wife was staring calmly at the ring.
Two employees carried a sofa and armchair, and put them right in the middle. Another followed with a large machine in his arms. He placed it carefully in front of the chairs and adjusted the antenna on top.
Andi and I exchanged wary glances. Cassandra burst into tears and buried her face in her mother’s side. Chuck bounced off the edge of his seat and under his chair, right at the back where no one could see him.
I stared over my shoulder at the audience. My thousand eyes took in their individual expressions in a trice. Wave’s face was red and sweaty. His brother-in-law, Dr Carp, was dripping with sweat and his fish eyes were so wide that I’d never seen anything like it. Mrs Carp tried to struggle to her feet, only to fall to the floor in a dead faint with her gills flapping uselessly.
The expectant silence faltered. There was none of the exuberant catcalling from the young folk, leading the rest of us to shush them, which usually marked the build-up when a freak show rolled into Winfield and set up its tent. For once, even Mrs Wave the Human Mouth’s lips were still.
An employee led a man into the ring and placed him behind the sofa. Another followed leading a woman. Her movements were jerky and odd. Her face looked stiff and uncomfortable.
Andi crossed herself and whispered a prayer. The third employee led two children into the ring by the hand. The boy was about Chuck’s age but instead of being full of life he was glassy eyed and catatonic. The girl waddled rather than walked. She was younger than Cassandra but it took all three of the employees to lift her onto the armchair. As the girl settled into it the springs ground out a whiny complaint at her weight.
I tried to block out the sound of my own daughter whimpering as she cowered into her mother’s embrace.
“Shall we leave?”
Andi pursed her lips.
“I think it’s too late. What’s wrong with that woman? And the man? So rigid! It’s not natural.”
I chewed my lip. It wasn’t natural. The woman’s movements were awkward and lumpy. I could smell a whiff of plastic. Sort of oily and new. And the stale air of the tent was heavy with that odd smell left behind after iron welding.
A commotion to my left delayed the start of the show. I craned round to see. Silus Sneeze, who boasted the most sensitive nostrils in Winfield and far beyond, had been overcome and his slender body was being carried out by Augustus Strong’s diminutive mother.
The ringmaster waited for everyone to settle down again. He clapped his hands loudly.
“Let our show begin!”
The clapping petered away without ever really having become enthusiastic.
The woman walked around the sofa and armchair. Her hips swayed and her bottom protruded oddly as she sashayed around. She sat down. Her legs crossed at the ankle. I’d never seen anyone wear such high heels. They were well over a foot high and her toes were nowhere near the ground.
“Plastic Woman! She wasn’t born that way! No, Sir! Such beauty as Priscilla possesses takes dedication and time. Thankfully, Professor Crackpot was on hand to help her make the most of herself. And she’s damn near perfect. The ideal wife. Doesn’t Priscilla deserve a husband every bit as impressive?”
The ringmaster shouted his question out into the audience but only silence, deepening and ruminative, answered his booming rhetoric. He swallowed nervously.
“Luckily, Professor Crackpot was on hand to introduce Perfect Priscilla to Steve. Now, Steve hasn’t always been the strong man you see today. A man has to work at these things to prove his mettle. Or maybe I should say his metal. But which alloy we’ve injected into Steve is a trade secret. In fact-”
The ringmaster seemed all set to embark on a smug, self-satisfied journey of questions (to which he provided prompt answers by means of a running commentary), when the voice of Reverend Vestry shouted out,
“We have all manner of oddities in Winfield but this is contrary to God’s laws!”
A buzz of agreement ran around the audience. Heads were nodding.
The ringmaster bowed solemnly to the vicar.
“We promised you an evening of evil. At least allow us to finish the show.”
Reverend Vestry got to his feet. He strode out of the tent in silence, followed by his two-headed wife. Their beetle-like younger children scuttled after. I tried to struggle to my feet to follow but I tripped over Andi doing the same thing whilst Cassandra dragged at her arms. We both fell awkwardly back into our seats.
The ringmaster cleared his throat.
“To continue! I present, Little P!”
The girl sat placidly on the armchair. The employees returned bearing huge platters of pies.
“P for Priscilla like her Ma? P for pumpkin? P for pie? Probably! S’all she eats!”
The girl stuffed a whole pie into her vast, gaping mouth. She bit off chunk after chunk of another. Pie after pie disappeared. The audience was appalled. Two children started crying and their mother led them out of the tent. Wailing distress drifted back inside through the canvas flap.
The audience’s attention turned to the boy. He’d been staring at the flickering screen without a hint of awareness of what was happening around him.
“Sonny can concentrate so well that nothing can distract him. What a brilliant mind to be able to block out everything else.”
Not to be outdone by the rest of his family, Steve lifted P’s groaning armchair with his right hand. With his left, he hoisted the sofa bearing his wife and son. He stood with them poised above his head.
I tried to curl up into a ball. Andi put all four of her hands over her mouth to stifle her sobs. I looked through the wooden slats. Chuck was pressed right back under the seat and he’d turned his eyes away from the show.
I lifted Andi and Cassandra up. I told Chuck to follow but he was already bouncing ahead of us towards the exit.
Angry voices drifted after us as we stormed towards the tent flap. We passed a family of newcomers as we went. The two younger children vomited. The babe-in-arms was bawling. Its mother was shaking uncontrollably. Their elder sibling covered her face with her wings. The oldest boy ran in circles shrieking. He was Upside-Down Boy, so it was quite a sight to behold. The father returned the lad to his mother. Then he strode into the ring and shoved the ringmaster in the chest.
“What do you mean by bringing freaks like this to Winfield? Look at my children! How are they supposed to sleep tonight?”
The father gestured to his five offspring. The eldest had a normal human head, if there is any such thing in this odd world of ours, but on her back were the wings of a beautiful butterfly. The vivid colours had drained away. Her twin brothers—one so short he was only an inch high, the other quite the tallest lad I’ve ever seen and not done growing—cowered into their mother. The baby whimpered. The oldest boy rocked from side to side with his feet wiggling in the air.
I slowly led my family back to join them. The whole of Winfield rose as one. Assembled and riled to anger, we were quite something and the ringmaster quivered like a jelly.
“You can’t torment human beings! For profit! For show! Making money out of misery and degradation! Shame on you!”
The ringmaster cowered and crept from the tent.
We surrounded Steve, Priscilla and the two children with a buzz of gentle concern. Someone switched off the screen flickering in front of Sonny. Chuck bounced up to the lad and Sonny bent to pick him up. He looked at my ball-shaped son doubtfully but I thought I saw some understanding begin to dawn.
Augustus Strong lifted Little P in his arms. His mother murmured that it was as well she’d sown some extra salad greens for the kitchen garden this spring.
Steve rubbed his arms. Dr Carp began prodding the iron muscles whilst his nurse wife recorded his comments. The women surrounded Priscilla and gently tried to remove her shoes.
I held Andi close in my hairy arms.
“Oh, Septimus! Do you think they’ll be alright?”
“Winfield finds a way,” I whispered.