The Show That Smells
Akashic Books: 120 pp., $15.95 paper
Even by the standards of the paranormal romances that occupy the top slots of bestseller lists, Derek McCormack's new novel of cursed crooners, murderous fashion designers and homosexual vampires is an exercise in campy excess.
Taking its name from carny speak for a performance that features animal acts, "The Show That Smells" spins off the actual premise of country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers dying young as a result of tuberculosis. Jimmie's wife, Carrie, makes a deal with the devil to save her husband's life, only in McCormack's milieu the devil is the inimitable Parisian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli -- who happens to be a vampire who can be stopped only with liberal doses of Chanel No. 5. "The Show That Smells" is redolent with such high jinks.
The story is presented as a live-action film shot entirely in a mirror maze. The characters are both the actors and the roles they play. For instance, Schiaparelli's minion is simultaneously "Dracula's" Renfield and Lon Chaney in stage makeup. Because the action is located on a set that replicates everything ad infinitum, it's never clear what's "real" and what's simply in the script.
"Schiaparelli brushes back Carrie's hair. 'Tonight a taste.' Fangs flash. She bites her neck. Carrie can't speak. She drops the doll. Sound effect. Schiaparelli steps back so the camera can capture: nail polish leaking from her lips. On Carrie's neck, scarlet sequins." The latest in Dennis Cooper's Little House on the Bowery series, McCormack's slender little sendup is funny and frenetic as all get out. Puns ("Skin smokes. Seared hair. Seared skin. Seared seersucker. Stinks. Chaney No. 5") and one-liners ("She makes herself into a mist. Vampires, like perfumes, vaporize") abound. The only thing the characters don't do is break out in song or yodel, for which Rodgers was famous.
It all makes sense in a lost-in-the-fun-house-on-laughing-gas kind of way. Jimmie Rodgers really did die of TB, and what could be more appealing to a vampire than a seductive singer hemorrhaging blood? And Schiaparelli, who famously collaborated with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, was Coco Chanel's most bitter rival in the blood sport of haute couture between the wars.
As impossible as it sounds, this is familiar territory for McCormack. His 2003 novel "The Haunted Hillbilly" features vampires and a rodeo tailor, so the idea of an undead "Phantom of the Opry" is nothing new for him. Despite his propensity for lurid images and horrid puns, McCormack's clipped, rapid-fire sentences achieve a grim kind of bathetic poetry: "Jimmie burbles. Blood puddles. A red clown shoe on the floor." This will repulse some and titillate others, but it's never boring. Like a carny barker, McCormack promises thrills and chills, and "The Show That Smells" delivers grotesqueries galore.
Ruland is the author of the story collection "Big Lonesome."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun