FREAK MUSEUM by R. R. Ryan (2012, Ramble House)
#11 Freak Museum. RRR had a genius for putting her characters in horrid situations. This time her heroine is an unwed mother who falls into the clutches of a gang of mad scientists who create monstrous freaks from newborn infants-or are the freaks real? A battery of stock detectives die horribly trying to find out.
– Karl Edward Wagner, 13 Best Science Fiction Horror Novels (Twilight Zone Magazine 1983)
The third and final R. R. Ryan novel on the KEW list, Freak Museum, is also the weakest. I’m not sure what inspired KEW to put this one on it, but it’s not up the same level of dread as either The Subjugated Beast or Echo of a Curse. It’s a good read, just not what I’ve come to expect from the books he recommended. It also has the tendency to run all over the place plot-wise, which gives further weight to my speculation that R R Ryan was a joint collaboration between father and daughter.
First published in 1938, Freak Museum begins with an unwed mother, Bridget O’Malley, trying to find work in Ireland. She’s had the misfortune of seeing her boyfriend, a brilliant chemist, die and finding out she’s with child. Bridget ends up falling into the hands of an organization known as The Mary Magdalen Guild which finds work for women in her situation But all they can find for her is a position in England, where she is soon spirited. Before she leaves, she is examined by a Dr. Stettin, whom Bridget describes as resembling a tapeworm.
Promised a secretarial position, Bridget finds herself placed in a museum of sorts run by the suave and mysterious Mr. Axe. It’s a “freak museum” where people can come and stare (for a fee) at the grotesque and unusual products of humanity. People who have been born with deformities This sort of entertainment was popular before WWII. Common sense and advances in medicine eventually prevailed. At one time, every circus in America had it’s “sideshow” where people could, for a small fee, stare at two-headed dogs in alcohol.
The novel takes a bizarre turn when Bridget comes to term and delivers her baby. She’s told the child was still-born and not to ask questions. But the mysterious Axe is vague on what happened and hints the baby might have survived. Mr. Axe, who runs some kind of fascist organization on the side, wants to recruit Bridget into his organization. But she refuses the blind obedience he demands.
As Bridget puts it:
“I’m Irish to the core; and I’m pro nothing else; but there seems to be an unfounded idea in some quarters that Ireland’s peopled by foaming chauvinists alone. So far as I can see, each country is peopled by simple human beings with peace and friendship in their minds, who have no animosity to any other race — until it’s deliberately planted there by a small bunch of megalomaniacs who call criminal processes by high-sounding names and whose impulses definitely are retrograde, not progressive.”
Next, Axe tries to involve her in a scheme to recruit a wealthy man to his cause. At which point the book begins to involve boy detectives, Scotland Yard, and the artistic temperament. There’s also hidden rooms over acid baths, a variety of human-animal hybrids such as the octopus, swordfish, and centaur. The book makes more turns than a Pennsylvania highway exit.
It’s because of all the turns Freak Museum takes I have proposed a theory about the R. R. Ryan’s novels as a joint or group effort. There is no way to know for sure, but I can imagine the father looking at what his daughter had given him thinking “this will never work.” and deciding to turn the book into a spy novel. And the daughter, upon seeing what he’d done, trying to steer the finished copy back to toward a dark romance.
Not the strongest of the Ryan novels on the KEW List, but essential if you want to finish it. More hand-claps to Ramble House for making it available to the public in print and digital formats.