Derek McCormack, The Show That Smells (misFit, 2008)
Mirror mazes, vampires and tuberculosis perfume Derek McCormack’s latest. It’s contemporary niche fiction leaning experimental, then waxing strange. The title, which hooked me, is a reference to an animal show at a carnival: The Show that Smells. Its narrative takes place in a maze of mirrors at an undisclosed carnival, at an undisclosed location. Carnies are an intriguing subculture and it is a curious start considering vampires, of course, don’t reflect.
McCormack’s style is a departure from convention. For example, he uses a series of parentheses to illustrate a swatch of cloth whereby the curve in the "(" represents the thread in a stitched paper. Original and raw when later the physical metaphor is bold: blood on the stitching through the page.
The question I had to ask: Is thirty-four pages worth the effort to build up to a character gimmick? That famous line from Stephen King’s The Shining comes to mind “All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy.” So for me, it can be, but I’m a punctuation nerd. I’m the guy who is still fascinated by Wayne Koestenbaum’s Hotel Theory (Soft Skull Press 2007) where two stories are told simultaneously on two columns per page. One of the two Koestenbaum’s stories doesn’t use the words “a”, “an” or “the”. So I’m open to a lot. As for The Show that Smells, it needed a bigger payoff. I can make ANSI graphics of boobs to put on the splash page of my circa 1989 Wildcat BBS system, but character play doesn’t equate to automatic coolness.
There may have been a larger metaphor another reader might have unlocked. Someone else may have turned the key of McCormack’s prose to discover the next Faulkner within, or maybe even discover it was one big great poop joke. As for me, I couldn’t find it. I might have missed it during the rather extensive section of strange sexual scenes, grouped together and seemeingly out of place. No sexual tension and then bang. If however, you are a reader looking for the possible reward of unlocking its secrets while enjoying reading about vampire oral, you might really enjoy the text.
The assonance and comical alliteration were sometimes worth the ramping up. “‘Beans bedammed,’ I say sweeping them aside with my brogue.” I couldn’t help but hope there was a treasure at the end; I would have been thrilled, I would have been rewarded. And then I hit the third section which included paragraphs like, “At my vampire carnival, candy apples will be candy babies. Hot dogs stuffed will be stillborns. Baby hamburgers, Baby back ribs, Bar-b-que? Baby-que!” And phrases like, “At my vampire carnival, buy bubble gum made from a baby’s tongue. Root beer! My secret ingredients are sassafras, nutmeg – and baby!” It’s an amusing passage, but contained in a series of five pages dedicated to prose of baby death. It’s not my bag. One or two dead baby references: funny. A string of over a dozen? It reminded me of a Seth Macfarlane routine gone wrong.
McCormack’s sentences are structured, the story ordered, and his details are bizarrely original. “Sputum smells like socks. From her purse she pulls out a bottle. He sticks the neck up his nose. Chanel N°.5. ‘Never,’ he says.” I like the idea of vampires in a mirror maze. It deserves to be integrated into carnie folklore. Is it worth the admission price? Not for me. Is it too experimental for a mainstream audience? Yes.
Derek McCormack’s other works include: Dark Rides (Gutter Press 1996), Wild Mouse (with Chris Chambers, Pedlar Press 1998), Halloween Suite (Pas de chance, 1998), Wish Book (Gutter Press, 1999), Western Suit (Pas de chance 2001), The Haunted Hillbilly (Soft Skull 2004), Grab Bag (Akashic Books 2004), Christmas Days (House of Anansi Press 2006). None of which broke him into the main stream. The Show That Smells,, also published by Akashic, will not change his niche status, but I’m sure we’ll see more from the author.
Toward the end my thoughts drifted, remembering a fun line from earlier in the text, “Mirror mazes don’t have fire exits.” Unfortunately books don’t either.
Bruce Seymour is a writer from New Haven, CT.