Here’s a woman in horror that I’ve spoken about at some length here on the blog and in social circles in general and I could continue to blather on and on about her and her masterful storytelling abilities. But instead, I’m going to defer to her superior eloquence and give the stage to her. In the following essay she talks about her work and discusses RADIUM GIRL her novel in progress. If you haven’t read Lisa’s work, you should follow the links at the bottom of this post and go fix that.

A Double-Lens Character

By Lisa Manetti

Although I’ve written about medical freaks before (most notably the Siamese twins, Eleanor and Abby in the Bram Stoker Award-nominated novella, DISSOLUTION, soon to be covera feature-length film), this is the first time I’m attempting to describe one who has not only undergone a terrible transformation, but who is forced by her economic straits to exhibit herself in a traveling circus sideshow in the early 1920s.

Julia Gifford is the first person narrator* of my novel-in-progress, RADIUM GIRL, and from the opening lines she lets us know that she’s on emotionally shaky ground, feeling insecure and hoping to reassure herself:

My sister, Rose, knows where I am. At least I’m pretty sure she does; if she doesn’t know the precise town, if she doesn’t look in the newspaper or hear one of our ads on the radio, she definitely knows where I’ve just been because it must say so right on the telegram that goes along with the money I send every week. Mustn’t it? Even if it doesn’t say, she could always ask the counter clerk couldn’t she?

When I’m nervous—especially just before show time—I like to imagine her back home on Main Street walking past the pointed gray spires of the First Presbyterian Church on a late spring day, her blue gingham dress flirting sideways in the breeze, her heels clacking on the sidewalk until she gets to the Western Union.

Julia, herself, can no longer walk. She tells us she’s displayed by the owners of the Cuppy, Whiting and Todd circus as an Electric Girl—but not the usual variety on tap for a Ten-in-One sideshow: She glows in the dark like the other dial painters who worked at U.S. Radium beginning during WW I and were taught to lip point their brushes (ingesting radium by yet another vector) to luminesce watches, clocks and instrument dials.

She’s a double-freak, but because she’s not a natural born prodigy, she can’t even achieve the modest position in that circumscribed world, a head-liner—but that doesn’t stop the talker from trying to lure the crowd into see her, become witness to the hellish transformation that Julia is subject to:

Step right this way, ladies and gents. Because, for a mere two bits, just the fourth part of a dollar, you can witness for yourself the shocking horror this young woman faces day after day….”

Inside, the glow is gone, eclipsed by the brilliant light of tungsten bulbs in clear glass globes, and I’m displayed lying on a tufted red velvet sofa—the better to see the prodigious football-sized swelling that now grotesques my lower jaw, the ruined blackened bubbling mass that is my left knee….

She’s a voyeur of her own horror and the other freaks’ malformations at the same time she is being viewed, watched (and presumably) judged by the sideshow patrons and the world at large.

In his highly interesting book Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, Leslie Fiedler speaks about the simultaneous fascination and repulsion that draws us to look at victims like Julia and, with a shuddery frisson, to safely affirm our own “normalcy.”

Body integrity is a hot topic these days, but I suspect the fear of uncontrolled change and transformation has always been with us as a species. No one wants to think about what life would be like if (for example) an accident caused us to lose a limb; no one wants to imagine how he or she would cope with that loss.

Fiedler also discourses about the Eros of ugliness and in the beauty and the beast myth, and recounts at length that the elephant man, Joseph Merrick, retained a lifelong hope that he’d meet a blind woman who could learn to love him. At this point, I don’t know for certain that my character Julia Gifford feels the same—though surely she feels betrayed by her family and worse, her own body. And the betrayal she experiences haunts her on every level of her existence. It’s the stuff of our—and her—worst nightmares and it’s real.

Mannetti Guest Post
One of the dial painters suffering from radium-induced sarcoma


*I frequently use first person narrative when writing dark historical fiction because it lends an immediacy that aids the reader in becoming immersed in the past.

You can find Lisa’s books on her Amazon author page and you can learn more about her on her website at

Lisa_KGB_READINGAbout Lisa Mannetti:

Lisa Mannetti’s debut novel, The Gentling Box, garnered a Bram Stoker Award and she has since been nominated three times for the prestigious award in both the short and long fiction categories: Her story, “Everybody Wins,” was made into a short film and her novella, “Dissolution,” will soon be a feature-length film directed by Paul Leyden. Recent short stories include, “Esmeralda’s Stocking” in Never Fear: Christmas Terrors; “Resurgam” in Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran, and “Almost Everybody Wins,” in Insidious Assassins. Her work, including The Gentling Box, and “1925: A Fall River Halloween” has been translated into Italian.

In addition to The Box Jumper, she has also authored The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, two companion novellas in Deathwatch, a macabre gag book, 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave your Lover, as well as non-fiction books, and numerous articles and short stories in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Forthcoming works include “Arbeit Macht Frei” in Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories and a novel about the dial-painter tragedy in the post-WWI era, Radium Girl.

Lisa lives in New York in the 100 year old house she originally grew up in with two wily (mostly) black twin cats named Harry and Theo Houdini.


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