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October 28, 2010

Book Review: Side-Show Siren by Ed Wood

Ed Wood and the carnival. Those two seem to go hand in hand. Side-Show Siren features hallmarks of Wood topics. The unsuspecting reader gets trickshooting stuntmen (apparently patterned after Kenne Duncan), a giant creature called “The Abominable Snowman,” half-man, half-woman drag queens, lots of weirdo sex, strippers and oily perverted money grubbers. Who could ask for more?

The trouble begins at Duke’s carnival. This rollercoaster of a mystery begins with the death of the area’s circuit court judge. While visiting the carnival with his daughter and her boyfriend, the Judge is found murdered and mangled on the Ferris Wheel. The apparent brutality of the crime implicates Kari (or Karl, depending on where he shows up in the novel), the Abominable Snowman. Only, Kari is nowhere to be found. The police begin a manhunt. Wood describes the carnival in his unique fashion:

The tension was high. It was a strange mixture of emotions and human beings that walked the dark midway surrounded by the blaring music of the carousel, so eerie in the stillness of the pre-dawn. The haunting sounds set against the motionless rides beyond.

“It’s the devil’s work,” shuddered the fat lady.

In between deaths, the characters play endless games of poker and Pepper shows up. She is a harlot, run out of town by the Sheriff, Rance (a classic Wood name) and accosted by the money grubber. Pepper ends up at the carnival and falls for Duke. They have a lot of sex and play cards and have more sex. Next, the Sheriff ends up dead. The “meat being boiled off of his bones,” in the commissary tent. No one really notices, but when Don/Donna… the “half and half” is killed, well, things start to pick up.

They play some more cards, get threatened by the cops and find Kari. Kari climbs the Ferris Wheel, a la King Kong, trying to escape, but is shot down by the police and Jinx, the ex-cowboy sharpshooter. Although, when Kari is finally dead, the true killer emerges from the shadows. Who could it be?

In a denouement that comes straight from the Harry Stephen Keeler guide on How to Gyp a Mystery Reader, the real killer is Clay Warner. Clay, a transvestite, killed the Judge for some past misdeed along with the Sheriff, killed Donna and took over his/her identity and killed one of the strippers because she was a, well, stripper. Clay also killed Greeny, who everyone thought was stealing. Clay’s motivations are as bizarre as the rest of the novel, so I don’t think anyone will be surprised. Warner takes the moral high ground and revenge as motive. Incidentally, he was also instrumental in the death of Kari. Whew. Probably would have found him sooner if everyone could stop playing so much damn poker.

For Clay’s true motives, let us turn to Mr. Wood, who provided this Afterword.

“The amount of anxiety evoked by crime, and especially violent crime, is such that one is tempted to feel that its roots lie deep. We are, of course, bound to be impressed by striking examples of criminal behavior in our society, but why are such very strong feelings aroused in us? Why, for example, in the face of criminal violence, do we ourselves become so violent in return? It may be because a shadowy unacknowledged side of ourselves finds criminal behavior not uncongenial, that we are so upset when it breaks through in other people. Most psychologists who study crime nowadays look for its causes in mental factors which lie outside the individual’s control, and no one did more to encourage this than Sigmund Freud… Everything we do, he contended, has a discoverable anxiety. Crime too has its origins in our personal emotional lives.” (Howard Jones, Crime in a Changing Society). The origins of Clay’s macabre ambitions may seem obscure, at first glance, but think back to the story of Jack the Ripper and others like him in the annals of murder. One begins to see what a mistaken emotional conviction can do, how it may affect tragically the lives of others…

Now, it isn’t clear what this has to do with why Clay killed all those people, but it sounds really pretty when read aloud.

Side-Show Siren is fairly available. Copies spring up on online auctions like eBay fairly regularly and move for $45 to $50. The book was reprinted by the nowdefunct Woodpile Press in 2001 but there are fewer than six copies that were ever sold. If you find one, consider yourself lucky.

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