Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, October 3, 2022

Monday, October 3, 2022: Maximum Shelf: The Curator

Scribner Book Company: The Curator by Owen King

Scribner Book Company: The Curator by Owen King

Scribner Book Company: The Curator by Owen King

Scribner Book Company: The Curator by Owen King

The Curator

by Owen King

Owen King takes readers into an impeccably crafted, wildly imaginative world in The Curator, as a young woman tries to find out what happened to her long-dead brother while the city in which she lives crumbles around her.

The unnamed city is known for its "essential unmappability," nicknamed the Fairest and ruled for centuries by "handsome, heavy-browed monarchs." It is dotted with luxury hotels, traces of pagan rites, secret societies and pickpockets, and split down the middle by a dank, gray-water river known as the Fair. King (Double Feature) succeeds in making this setting feel entirely strange and also eminently knowable--a hallmark that carries throughout nearly every aspect of The Curator, at once fantastical and yet grounded in a too-familiar reality of corrosive greed and power grabs. These things come to a head in the opening pages of King's novel, as the Fairest has just staged a revolution and is working to create a Provisional Government, to be led by an unlikely trio: a playwright, a once-wealthy student and a dockman. "They had done it, the whole bunch of them, literate and illiterate alike: thrown the brakes on the machine and brought it to a halt before it could swallow up any more lives. They'd taken back the nation's wealth for the people who made it."

Amidst the settling dust of the rebellion, Dora ("D") yearns to finally discover what happened to her long-dead brother, who once worked for the Society of Psykical Research. Before his untimely death, D asked her brother where he went during the daytime, only to be told, "I made friends with one interesting person, one thing led to another, and now I'm part of a whole set of interesting people, and we're going to save the world. I hope you'll want to join us eventually." Somewhat unwittingly, that's exactly what D does in her search for answers. Finding the Society's building reduced to rubble, she contrives to become curator of the National Museum of the Worker in the building next door, spending weeks carefully reconstructing the wax figurines in their employment habitats and picturing in her mind the rooms in which each figure lives, just as she does for each new person she meets. When a new neighbor moves in on the other side and her nights become punctuated by the screams of torture victims, the vision of the rebellious city and its new government begins to crack as D is brought further and further into schemes for power, money and everlasting life.

Because, despite the apparent success of the revolution, something in the city is off: "[T]here was a sense of something furtive and sly and marginal pervading everything, both inside and outside the walls of the museum." That sense leaks out across every page of The Curator, as what D--and the reader--believes to be true is slowly revealed to be a lie. Or, at the very least, an incomplete representation of the truth. Rumors abound: a Morgue Ship sailing across solid land, collecting the souls of murdered folk across the city; holy cats scheming; pickpockets and cutpurses leaping into the mayhem to make a penny or two; a stalled army front far away on the road into the city. As the cast of characters with whom D interacts becomes an increasingly complex web of interconnected people (it turns out six degrees of separation applies even in King's fantastical setting), the slow untangling of each rumor and how each person is connected to it is as compelling as D's own story.

That's the true magic of The Curator: watching King weave a story that is at once epic in scope--so many characters! Side plots galore! Romance and intrigue! Magic and gore and torture and lore!--and entirely focused on one woman: a daughter turned orphan turned maid turned accidental revolutionary turned curator of a national museum turned city's saving grace. The Curator is ultimately as difficult to categorize as D is, weaving together the real and the fantastical, full of curiosities and wonders, violence and beauty, and incredibly nuanced and layered characters that feel real. It's an absolute riot of a read, requiring a bit of patience as readers learn alongside D what to believe and whom to trust, what is real and what is fabricated--and whether that even matters in the end. With dark humor and a keen eye for detail, King invites readers into a genre-defying narrative that asks readers to imagine what might be and what could be, as a woman stands between two worlds of her own, asking the same. --Kerry McHugh

Scribner, $28.99, hardcover, 480p., 9781982196806, March 7, 2023

Scribner Book Company: The Curator by Owen King

Owen King: A Wild Victorian Tale of Supernatural Conspiracy

(photo: Anne Raftopoulos)

Owen King is the author of Double Feature and We're All in This Together, and co-author, with his father, Stephen King, of the horror novel Sleeping Beauties. His writing has also appeared in various magazines and journals, including a short story in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet that inspired his third solo book, The Curator (Scribner, March 7, 2023), a fantastical tale of a city on the brink of revolution and a woman making her way between worlds. King lives in upstate New York with his wife, novelist Kelly Braffet, and their cats, described below.

You've spoken before about your growth as a writer--and editor of your own work--over time. Did the process for The Curator feel different from your previous books?

The process of writing The Curator was a little different initially, because it was based on a short story called "The Curator" that I published a few years ago in the wonderful magazine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. The story was its own, fully realized piece, but it was tightly contained; there were all these shadowy implications in the background, and I could see the shape of a bigger, wilder narrative that I wanted to tell. I also just really loved the main character, D, and the way she handled herself, her bravery and her secrets.

It's hard not to love D! What was it like to develop the short story into a full-length novel?

Once I committed myself to an attempt to tell that bigger, wilder narrative, it did take a little while for the novel to sort of absorb the story and move beyond it. The book is based on the short story, but I want to add that, ultimately, they only share a few elements, and even the elements they do share are often altered in significant ways.

The "bigger, wilder narrative" is just that--big and wild, fantastical and horrific and marvelous all at once. With so much wildness, not just in the imagined city against which the novel is set but also in the storyline itself, how do you describe this story to folks who ask what you're working on?

It's a challenge! That said, D is at the heart of the novel, and her narrative is the book's mainline, so probably the simplest way to describe The Curator is as the story of a domestic servant in a familiar but unnamed Victorian city who discovers a supernatural conspiracy.

Noting that your past works have been widely described as comical and The Curator, while it has moments of a biting kind of humor, is quite dark--what, if anything, felt different going into this story idea?

The fantastical elements of The Curator are front and center, as is the quasi-Victorian milieu; I'm not sure I've ever written anything that's so much of a "yarn." At the same time, I do hope that readers feel like the characters are "real," that their hardships and their desires and their senses of humor ring true. In that sense, The Curator is like any other fiction: its transportive pleasures depend on how compelling the characters are to begin with.

Fiction has that unique power to transport, as you mentioned, while also inviting new ways of thinking about our world and our lives within it. The Curator poses some big questions about power, voice, work and storytelling. Were there ideas or curiosities you hoped to inspire in D's story?

The world D inhabits doesn't think much of her--in fact, it often doesn't think of her at all. She's consistently underestimated and overlooked. There's so much to D, these great strengths and sorrows, and I hope readers respond to her point of view, and root for her, and feel like the narrative does her justice.

There are so many layers built into the world of The Curator and the city that you describe as unmappable... did you map it in any way in your head as part of the writing? 

The city is dense and sprawling, a combination of late 19th-century London and late 19th-century New York, but most of the action takes place at a few key locations, so I had a concrete plan for where those important spots were in relation to each other, and that informed my mental map.

There's a fairly epic scope to the cast of this novel: Did you have a favorite to write and/or a favorite because you'd want to hang out with them?

D is absolutely my favorite character to write, probably ever. Her point of view is a pleasure to adopt: I greatly enjoy seeing the way she sees, the clarity of her observations, the specific tilt of her imagination.

Most of the characters in the book are a handful! There are not many I would like to hang out with, although they have their charms. There's an important character named Ike, a teenage thief who becomes friends with D, who would be fun to spend an afternoon with, although at some point we'd probably end up running from constables. There's also an animal character, the mascot of a luxury hotel, a cat named Talmadge XVII, who plays a crucial role, and I'd like to meet her. She'd be indifferent to meeting me, however.

Noting the ways you've woven cats into the narrative, I'm curious: Do you have a cat? Are you a cat person? A dog person? (Must we choose?)

My family has two tabby cats, Barney and Frankie, who are not very alike, but get along beautifully. Barney's a gentle older fellow, and Frankie's kind of a wild card. They enrich our lives a great deal. I love their serenity, and I love their purpose, the intense way that they do every single thing. I've probably had, oh, a half-dozen cats in my life, and they're all special to me.

I do love dogs, as well, but since we always have a cat, it never seems quite right to bring a canine home. --Kerry McHugh

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