Strange Toys is an odd, creepy novel. It won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1987, though apparently Patricia Geary hadn’t actually intended it as science fiction at all. I found it while exploring the labyrinthine basement of a local used bookstore, but it was reprinted in electronic form in 2018.
The heroine, nicknamed Pet, is the baby of her family. (We never learn her real name.) She is nine years old as the book begins, in the late 1950s. Her twelve-year-old sister, June, bullies her. Her sixteen-year-old sister, Deane, is worse. Deane is in some kind of unspecified trouble with the law (she’s into the occult, too), and the girls’ parents leave home abruptly with Pet and June because they fear retribution from Deane’s criminal friends.
What follows is an unsettling road trip across the United States, including a Disneyland ride never sanctioned by Walt, and a number of seedy roadside attractions. We learn more about Deane’s case in dribs and drabs as Pet’s parents comment about it. Intermittently, Pet sees a mysterious man named Sammy, who wants Pet to give him Deane’s spellbook. The book shows Pet images of a terrible future for her family, centered on New Orleans, and she begins to think surrendering it might be the only way to protect them.
We then skip ahead to Pet in her late teens. It quickly becomes clear that something has gone horribly wrong, but Geary draws out the tension by taking her time with the reveal. Pet learns some information that leads her back to New Orleans in the hopes of confronting Deane. Finally, a third section follows Pet at thirty, with a chance to fix the mistakes of both earlier periods. The through-line for all of this is Pet’s search for personal power, and therefore safety. She starts as a child with no power at all, and ends up somewhere very different.
It’s a phantasmagorical novel with a lot of trippy scenes, including a literal drug trip. Pet is not the most reliable of narrators. A few times, she would leave a place without taking an item, and then later she’d have the item in her possession. I don’t think these were continuity errors. I think we’re supposed to think that either she did take the item but was dissociating at the time, or that she’s only imagining having it in the later scene. The ending is ambiguous and somewhat confusing; I find myself turning it over in my head trying to decide what I think “really happened.”
While the story continually intrigued me, it also reflected a nasty side of humanity. There’s child sexual abuse and animal abuse. Casual racism is rife. Everyone hates fat people. Is there a book version of feeling like you have something sticky on your hands? I often felt like that while reading Strange Toys.
I would recommend Strange Toys mainly to horror readers. Geary’s imagery is striking, whether she is portraying mid-century Americana kitsch or dreamlike scenes of the supernatural. If you can stomach the nastiness, and if you like thought-provoking ambiguity, you might find this book rewarding.