It was a good book to begin with, and not just because it was Sturgeon’s first novel. Here was a classier self-delusion than the common fantasy of the secret adoption, a world in which a child might discover that he was something much better than the hidden heir to royalty.
Horton Bluett is a somewhat tragic child. Tormented by other children at the schoolyard for the disgusting act of eating ants, abused and maimed by his cold, uncaring parents, Horty runs away to join the circus. He takes with him the only thing in the world he loves, a broken Jack-in-the-box with glistening eyes named Junky.
At the circus, he masquerades as a “dwarf” girl named Hortense—"Kiddo” to all outside the circle of friendly circus folk.
Gradually, we learn that the circus’ owner, Pierre Monetre (“Maneater” to Horty’s friends Zena, Bunny, Havana and Solum), is an obsessed man who has an ominous hold over the other performers in the freak show. As the three fingers chopped off by Horty’s father Armand begin to grow back, as Horty discovers that he can reshape his body freely, the Maneater searches far and wide for a treasure he calls “dreaming jewels.”
The themes are far from juvenile. Some events and dialogue are downright smutty. Yet I read this book, enrapt, when I was ten years old, and was untouched by the darker shadows. I was too engrossed in the triumph of Horty’s vengeance. Where else but in fiction could one find such complete and satisfactory tying off of loose ends?
The final confrontation with Maneater, in which Horty discovers his own heritage, and the mystery of the god-like dreaming jewels is solved, is as thrilling to me as an adult reader as it was when I was young. When Horty encompasses the destruction of his “father,” the rescue of his childhood friend Kay, and the redemption of Bunny and the others in the freak show, the child in me still cheers.
This book is periodically re-released: in hard-cover by Aeonian Press in 1978, Amereon in 1984, Buccaneer Books in 1993, and in a 1999 paperback edition by Vintage Press. Now you can download the Kindle version. If you want the physical book, you can often find well-loved copies in used-book stores.
However you choose to encounter it, it’s definitely worth the read!