“They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium, and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old then. He’d been doing it for years.”
Couldn’t resist starting the review with that first line! It’s one of my favorites, along with the first line of 1984.
No, despite what lurid conclusions many modern readers may leap, nay, pole vault into, Horty was caught eating ants. The primary story arc begins as Horty flees his adoptive parents’ house, taking only a handmade jack-in-the-box called Junky1, after the husband smashes Horty’s hand in a door frame, severing three fingers. (The Bluetts took him in rather as a publicity stunt during the husband’s failed run for office.) With more luck than he realizes, Horty is taken in by carnies, members of the sideshows of Pierre Monetre’s traveling circus. One of the midgets, Zena, takes him under her wing, and he travels with them for ten years, posing as Zena’s kid cousin2.
In this first portion of the book, there are clearly dark elements largely pertaining to Monetre’s antipathy to humans, but we have to wait until about halfway through the book to learn the underlying cause: on this planet, there are thousands, perhaps millions of alien lifeforms, which resemble, at least to humans’ limited perception, clear crystals. These ‘jewels’ dream, and when a single jewel dreams, it creates a duplicate of a living thing, flawed to varying degrees: a tree that is stunted, a cat with two legs, a man with no limbs or sweatglands…a midget. When two jewels mate, their combined dream pervades a living creature, and recreates it as something more than what it ought to be. Monetre has traveled the country, collecting ‘one jewel’ creatures, and planting plagues and infestations throughout, seeded by a jewel; he is constantly searching for a two-jewel human which he can control to wreak vengeance on humanity.
Well, it would have been Horty if Zena hadn’t gotten to him first.
Outdated a bit—how many carnivals are there today of the sort Sturgeon is describing? Stilted, more than slightly; the characters seem to spend most of the last third of the book explaining things to one another about the jewels, and as an editor and librarian, I lost track of the number of places I’d flag as “Show, don’t tell.” And yet I keep reading it! Because Sturgeon is arguably in the top 20% of science fiction writers—I’m not committing myself to higher than that because (and I’ll be the first to admit this) quite simply…tastes vary. But the characters are memorable, though the backstory of the jewels is a bit awkward, due to all that ‘telling’ I mentioned. Coming back to it again, I can feel the clamminess of Armand Bluett’s hands, recoil at Monetre’s venom.
As for what to read next, I’m going to assume you’ve come to Sturgeon after having read the Classic Three Authors, Heinlein, Clark and Asimov. Not necessarily liking them, mind—as I mentioned above, tastes vary—but that you’re at least familiar with them. Once you’ve worked your way through Sturgeon’s work—he wrote quite a bit—try Bradbury, and Henry Kuttner/C.L. Moore, both singly and in combination.
Oh, and the ants? The process of being altered by a pair of mated jewels creates a craving for formic acid.
1Keep an eye on that jack-in-the-box.
2Bear with Sturgeon; he does explain both how a boy can pose as a woman for ten years and why Horty was eating ants in the first place.