Derek McCormack has some curiously compulsive creative habits. The Toronto author’s previous novel, The Haunted Hillbilly, was a cowboy story with vampires, one that subversively re-imagined the demise of crooner Hank Williams at the hands (or rather, the incisors) of his undead tailor. His latest “phantasmagoria” is less a sequel to Hillbilly than a reprise of the same motifs, bringing together country stars, vampires, and sideshow freaks, and two duelling fashion designers, Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel. As McCormack puts it, it’s “a carnival, a vampire carnival – a carnival of fashion and death!”
Clearly, The Show That Smells isn’t your garden-variety work of fiction – it’s not even a run-of-the-mill vampire novel, for that matter. Besides the two rival fashion icons, who vie for the soul of country music star Jimmie Rodgers, the book is teeming with early 20th-century American celebrities like the Carter Family (“Down-home singers by day, vampire killers by night”) and actor Lon Chaney. The book reads as a sort of encyclopedia of camp, annotated by a mildly obsessive crackpot. “Elsa Schiaparelli is played by Elsa Lanchester – there’s a resemblance,” McCormack notes, drawing a hallucinatory parallel between haute couture and the bride of Frankenstein.
For all the name-dropping, though, this charged novel is given pace by McCormack’s tightly honed style, his prose worked as finely as one of Schiaparelli’s vibrant, sequin-spangled gowns. There’s humour, too, in his clipped delivery. Witness this exchange between the vampire-narrator and one of his victims:
“I write for Vampire Vogue, the style bible of the fashionable fiend.”
“There’s Vogue for vampires?” she says.
“We wear clothes,” I say. “We’re not werewolves.”
At times, the jokes do wear a little thin – “Leather goods? Leather bads!”, “Phantom of the Opera? Phantom of the Opry!”, etc. – but just like Rodgers, who reworked his signature tune, “Blue Yodel,” more than a dozen times in his short career, McCormack knows how to mine his obsessions to create truly unusual – and memorable –
works of art.