Miami Herald // The Show that Smells by Derek McCormack

Dreams of a vampire carnival with freaky fashions in ‘The Show that Smells’

This thoroughly hilarious, strange and altogether ghoulish little freak show of a book is a campy vampire story with more in common, aesthetically speaking, with William Gay’sTwilight than with Stephenie Meyer’s. Even the author’s note in the beginning provides a good, dark-humor laugh in setting the record straight about a famous perfume called Shocking! created by the surrealism-inspired fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli in 1937. ”This book is a work of fiction,” McCormack warns us. “It is a parody. It is a phantasmagoria. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Elsa Schiaparelli was never a vampire. Shocking! by Schiaparelli never contained blood.”

Shocking! indeed. There’s not much of a plot, but isn’t linear narrative overrated anyway? Instead, we get something that reads more like a combination of prose poetry and avant-garde drama in which people stand around in a hall of mirrors having witty conversations, most of them riotously funny. The cast of characters includes someone named Derek McCormack, as well as the yodeling singer Jimmie Rogers, Joan Crawford, Lon Chaney and Coco Chanel. Schiaparelli plays the villain. ”Couturiers whispered her name in terrified tones,” says Coco Chanel of her. ”She was a legend, a figure feared but seldom seen — a Satanic seamstress who catered to vampires.” And: “She started creating clothes for human clients. Even the names of her collections curdled my Christian soul.”

Schiaparelli is apparently designing a ”Carnival Collection” of haute couture — or ”Haute horreur!” — for the discerning sideshow freak. Among her minions are Larry the Lobster Boy, Pinny the Human Pincushion and a trusty embroiderer named Otto the Octopus Man.

Chanel’s most famous perfume is one of the many smells of the title. Lon Chaney in particular, however, has a serious aversion to it. ”Worse than wolfsbane. Gruesomer than garlic. Chaney clutches his throat like he’s strangling himself. All vampires act like silent stars.” When someone spills some on him, it “burns like battery acid. Blended with bleach. Skin smokes. Seared hair. Seared skin. Seared seersucker. Stinks. Chaney No. 5.”

Be warned: The book is not only hilarious but grotesque. Schiaparelli dreams of a vampire carnival where she will ”pinken popcorn with baby blood” and “prizes will be dolls — dead babies stuffed with sawdust.”

The Show that Smells is the 10th book in the Little House on the Bowery series edited by the great Dennis Cooper, an author and editor whose impact on American letters has not yet been fully felt in the mainstream. Most of the books he has chosen so far for this series, like Trinie Dalton’s Wide-Eyed and Travis Jeppesen’s Victims, will rock your world in unexpected ways.

A book like The Show that Smells — not that there are many books like it — reminds us that much of our most eviscerating contemporary literature is coming courtesy of the small, indie and university presses. It demonstrates that innovative literature, if such a thing still exists, can be accessible and even fun, especially for those of us with a dark sense of humor.