Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, by Nancy Stohlman. Boston, Massachusetts: Big Table Publishing, October 2018. 104 pages. $15.00, paper.
If you’ve ever stood and stared at yourself in a funhouse mirror and saw yourself as someone you don’t recognize, distorted or with two faces, then you have a pretty good idea of how Stohlman’s latest collection of oddities takes you through the gambit of freakshow possibilities in each of her stories. Stohlman, a performer herself, speaks of a childhood growing up with a circus clown for a mother and a father who seems to be obsessed with placing in the Guinness Book of World Records for various silly attempts.
Although the obvious thread connecting these stories together seems to be Stohlman’s quirky, clown-angst teenage years followed by confusing adulthood scenes, there’s another side to this thread that runs parallel to this theme. Much like the two-faced lady or the conjoined twins, Stohlman seems to be running alongside of her twin from another dimension, a more popular, put together version. But with anything that reflects bigger, better, and brighter, Stohlman summons emotions in each piece that can’t be blurred or escaped from. That’s what makes this mixed bag of oddities about as real as it can get.
In one of her opening pieces, “The Man From the Future,” Stohlman nails the sad clown theme by mixing depression with just the right amount of humor, a feat that isn’t easily balanced, but Stohlman is a master at painting on the makeup and barely being able to hide what’s cracking through underneath:
I was in the bathroom unsuccessfully killing myself when the man from the future arrived. He must have noticed my hesitation, the colorful array of pills, the way I could not meet my reflection in the mirror.
Looks like I got here just in time, he said, stepping out of the shower.
How did you get into my shower? I asked, aware now that I was wearing no panties.
He held out an aerosol can. Instant Fame* it said in cursive script. He put it on the counter. By the way your future self says hello and don’t open another credit card.
Scenes of sad mixed with humor are prevalent throughout the collection, balanced out with the occasional Guinness Book of World Records attempt by the narrator’s father, such as the record for petting a shark nonstop, but also by scenes occupied by the mother, an always silent but caricature-loud woman:
When I came home from school my mother was holding a pack of cigarettes and grinning. She held the pack out to me as if encouraging me to take one.
I’m nine, I said. She waited. When I didn’t say anything else, she squeezed and a thin stream of water came shooting out of the end of the pack and hit my shirt.
She bent over laughing without any sound.
The brilliance behind Stohlman’s language is she keeps it simple in its vulnerable act, yet, the images she manages to convey laugh outrageously or scream in sadness, and the emotions thrown out always hit their intended target. Another balancing act that Stohlman successfully manages are the tidbits of circus history and popular names from the freakshow and their background. She nails the unique aspect of human tragedy, such as in The Ape Lady, with varying performers, and shows how even though the times of Lobster Boy and The Elephant Man have long since passed, the human heartbreak is still present:
Jacqueline Hele’ne, the infamous four-legged woman, was born a dipygus—a rare form of conjoined twinning where one twin fuses with the lower half of the other and everything forms in duplicate—two pelvises, four legs, two sets of ovaries, two vaginas.
As a baby Jacqueline’s father would let the neighbors look at her for a nickle.
In the story, “The Dressing Room,” the narrator breaks a piece of a mirror off in order to take a shard of her own reflection. This missing piece, or alternate version of herself, follows her throughout the stories until the very end. These pieces are all open to interpretation, but the reader may find themselves in quite the paradox. In “The Fortune Teller,” Stohlman zeroes in on the curiosity of the future mixed with the longing of regret. Things or people lost that we can never get back. Aspects of ourselves, both past and present, that will never return:
The fortune teller looked at my hands, smoothed them onto the table. You lost something, she said.
Yes, I said. I want to get it back.
But you can’t get it back, you know that.
That’s not true. Don’t say that, I insisted. That’s why I’m here.
Looks, she said, pointing to the fleshy part on the outside of my palm. It’s gone. I don’t decide these things but I’m telling you what I see.
The overall feeling a reader can garner is much deeper than one can expect from what appears on the outside. Much like paying to enter a secret viewing room for The Infamous Bearded Lady, Stohlman never disappoints, it just may not be what the reader expects every time. That’s the beauty of this collection. The reader will never know if they’re going to die laughing, burst into tears, or scratch their heads in bewilderment. It’s a sideshow of stories that is both unpredictable and leaves you with wanting more.
Hillary Leftwich earned her MFA in fiction and poetry from the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver. She is co-host for At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. In her day jobs she has worked as a private investigator, maid, repo agent, and pinup model. Her writing can be found in print and online in such journals as The Missouri Review, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matter Press, Sundog Lit, NANO Fiction, and others. Her first book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in spring of 2019. She is Prose & Poetry editor at Heavy Feather Review. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com