by Steph Post


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The year is 1922. The carnival is Pontilliar’s Spectacular Star Light Miraculum, staked out on the Texas-Louisiana border. One blazing summer night, a mysterious stranger steps onto the midway, lights a cigarette and forever changes the world around him. Tattooed snake charmer Ruby has traveled with her father’s carnival for most of her life and, jaded though she is, can’t help but be drawn to the tall man in the immaculate black suit who conveniently joins the carnival as a chicken-biting geek. Mercurial and charismatic, Daniel charms everyone he encounters, but his manipulation of Ruby turns complicated when it’s no longer clear who’s holding all the cards. Daniel is full of secrets, but he hadn’t counted on Ruby having a few of her own.

When one tragedy after another strikes the carnival—and it becomes clear that Daniel is somehow at the center of calamity—Ruby takes it upon herself to discover the mystery of the shadowy man pulling all the strings. Joined by Hayden, a roughneck-turned-mural-painter wrestling demons of his own, Ruby engages Daniel in a dangerous, eye-opening game in which nothing is as it seems and everything is at stake.

Steph Post has firmly estblished herself as one of the most original and captivating voices in contemporary fiction, and with Miraculum she has written an unforgettable novel that is part Southern Gothic, part Noir, part Magical Realism, and all Steph Post.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781947993907
Publisher: Polis Books
Publication date: 01/07/2020
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 723,368
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Steph Post is the author of three acclaimed novels: A Tree Born Crooked, a semi-finalist for the Big Moose Prize, and two novels featuring Judah Cannon: Lightwood and Walk in the Fire. Post is a recipient of the Patricia Cornwell Scholarship for creative writing from Davidson College and the Vereen Bell writing award for fiction. She holds a Master’s degree in Graduate Liberal Studies from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her short fiction has appeared in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, The Round-Up, The Gambler Mag, Foliate Oak, Kentucky Review, Vending Machine Press, Nonbinary Review and the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics.

Her short story “The Pallid Mask” has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is a regular contributor to Small Press Book Review and Alternating Current Press and has published numerous book reviews and author interviews. She is currently the writing coach at Howard W. Blake High School in Tampa, FL. Visit author's website at stephpostfiction.com or @StephPostAuthor.

Read an Excerpt


Daniel stood in the center of the midway and felt its beating heart.

"Step right up, gents! Step right up, ladies! That's right! Prepare to be astounded, confounded and utterly shocked beyond your wildest dreams!"

The carnival's pulse raced around Daniel, surging forward, parting around him like water in a cataract. He reached his long fingers into the jacket pocket of his suit and pulled out a silver cigarette case.

"Ten for one, folks! Ten wonders for the price of one. You won't believe your eyes once you've stepped inside!"

Daniel opened the case without looking at it. He was fixated on the world erupting around him, its energy rushing out in all directions, the colors erratic, the spectacles jostling and competing with one another. Jeweled bulbs strung along the tops of the tents illuminated the garishly painted banners advertising horrors and wonders, feats of inhuman strength and displays of savage humanity.

"I've got the Alligator Lady and the Lizard Man! I've got a Giant so tall he can barely fit inside the tent!"

Daniel took out a cigarette and snapped the case shut. He balanced the cigarette between his fingers and closed his eyes. Electricity was humming through the wires, sizzling along the length of the midway, encircling the towering Ferris Wheel, framing the game booths and crowning the ballooning big top tent like a ribbon cinching ever tighter and tighter. Daniel loved the sound of electricity. He loved the way it reverberated in the back of his throat.

"I've got a woman so fat she can't walk on her own, but she's got a voice like a canary and a complexion like a summer's day! You've never seen a prettier gal in all of Louisiana! Don't miss out on Jolly Marjorie!"

Daniel listened. Clicking, shuffling, screeching, laughing, stamping, scraping, fire igniting, oohing and ahhing, crying, hissing, bells tinkling, canvas flapping, clay bottles tumbling, clattering, plates shattering, ropes snapping, corn popping, crackling, metal banging, clanging and a thousand voices clamoring for a thousand wants and underneath it all, the ceaseless march of the whistling calliope.

"And don't forget, folks! When you're done with the Ten Wonders of the World, the marvels just keep on coming!"

Daniel kept his eyes closed. A fight between two men broke out next to him, but he didn't flinch. He was tasting the burnt sugar in the air. He was smelling the greasepaint and the sour perfume and the unwashed bodies.

"There's still so much more to see! We've got men who can lift a thousand pounds and swallow swords! We've got women who can charm snakes and see your future!"

Daniel fit the cigarette between his lips. He pulled out a box of matches and shook one out into his hand. He struck the head, smelled the sulfur and felt the heat glinting off his shiny fingernails. He touched the match to the end of his cigarette and drew breath.

"And don't forget, gents! If you go all the way around, you'll find the ladies dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils. And let me tell you, what a dance that is!"

He tossed the match into the trampled muck and took the cigarette in his fingers again. Daniel let the smoke seep from his lips and nostrils and then he opened his eyes. The midway was still dazzling. The people were still rushing around him and the Ferris Wheel cars were still climbing high up into the night. Daniel lifted his head. The stars were still there, too. Still glittering in the night like sparks.

But there was something else.

"Prepare to be amazed, folks!"

Something more.

"Prepare to be astonished!"

An undercurrent. A ripple. Scintillant, but always in shadow. Daniel blinked slowly. It was there, flickering at the edge of his awareness. Prowling around the corners. Tantalizing, yet unseen. Unknown. Hermetic, but beckoning all the same.

"And don't forget, my ladies and gents, at nine o'clock sharp, under the big top ..."

Daniel turned to the talker who had been yelling from the nearest bally. He cocked his head as he looked at the man, sweating on the small wooden stage, shaking his cane and his straw hat at the crowd of people flowing past.

"... you'll witness an acrobatic performance of daring, grace and beauty like nothing you've ever seen! Ever imagined!"

Daniel slowly shook his head. He had seen everything. He had imagined everything. Daniel had been lured to the midway in search of a distraction, driven by his all-consuming need to keep the boredom at bay. But this. A shiver darted through him. This was more than he ever could have hoped for: something new.

"Are you ready, folks? Are you ready for it tonight?"

Daniel put the cigarette back between his lips and grinned. Oh, he was ready all right. He was ready for the night. He was ready for the show to begin.

* * *

The geek crouched down in the long wet grass at the edge of the dirt yard and dangled his hands between his knees. He cocked his head and considered the tree in the sharp moonlight. It was tall, an oak tree, with scraggly leaves and roots sunk down deep into the earth, too deep to care about a summer's drought. Too deep to know that everything else in the yard had already withered and died. It reminded the geek of a tree he had once climbed as a boy, back in a place called Missouri, on a farm whose name was escaping him. He couldn't think. He couldn't remember. He could only see the tree, surrounded by a ring of child's playthings: a cracked teacup, a spade, a dirty cloth doll in a dishtowel dress. Tattered ribbons had been tied to the base of a swing.

In the shadows, the geek thought he saw the swing move, twist slightly, the ribbons flutter for an instant, but the air was still, eerily still, as if the curving moon was crushing the night into a stupor. A whippoorwill called through the dark early morning, echoing its own song, and the geek heard it, but did not hear it. He studied the swing. He picked up the rope at his side and ran it through his hands, counting out the lengths as his eyes climbed the height of the tree to the branch arching out over the yard. There was enough for the job. The geek leaned back on the heels of his thin-soled shoes and pushed himself to standing. His bad knee, dislocated once on the ball field and once on the stage as he slipped in the blood of the chickens whose heads he had just bitten off, popped, but the geek did not stop to shake his leg out. He could feel the presence behind him. Watching, waiting. Expecting. He could smell the cigarette smoke.

The geek stood beneath the tree branch and looked up. He judged. He moved over, closer to the swing, and tilted his head upward again, trying to focus on the branch that kept disappearing into the darkness. He tossed the rope. Missed. Tossed again. The knotted end came down and dangled in front of the geek. He caught it and pulled it through the loop, threading the rope carefully, quietly. He did not want one of the dark eyes of the house to blink awake. He yanked the rope taut, leaned back, testing the weight, and then began to coil. When he reached thirteen, he trimmed the excess with his pocket knife. He had always been meticulous. He liked to do things right.

The geek stepped up onto the narrow board of the swing and steadied himself. He couldn't remember why he was doing this. He could barely remember who he was or once had been. The only memory that was clear in his mind was that of meeting the man on the midway. The man in the suit with the smile. A smile that, somehow, had driven him to this. The geek reached for the noose.

The swing wobbled as he struggled to get the rope over his head with one hand, but then it was around his neck, heavy, a little awkward, as he had never done this before. He tugged at the rope and thought it would hold. It wouldn't break his neck, but he figured it would strangle all right, so it would do. He angled his head backwards, looking up at the laughing sliver of moon flashing through the leaves. He didn't know why he was doing this. He only knew that he was. He only knew that he must. He squeezed his eyes shut. He was afraid. He stepped off the board and prayed it would soon be over.

* * *

Ruby knew something was amiss the moment she opened the door to her wagon and allowed the stale carnival air to wash over her. The midway was quiet, the sounds of the awakening cookhouse only reaching her as a muffled din, but she could feel it. The whisper. The urgency of news as it boiled over in the cramped, isolated confines of Pontilliar's Spectacular Star Light Miraculum. Ruby leaned on the warped wooden doorframe and raked her dark, tangled hair back away from her face. Already, the early July air was stifling, threatening to choke her if she breathed too deeply. She looked out at the lonely carousel, the garish horses frozen in mid-leap, the remnants of last night's show, paper cotton candy cones and sticky candy apple straws, strewn beneath their painted hooves.

Ruby finished braiding her hair and rubbed at her eyes with her rough palms. She pulled her hands away from her face and looked at them. The palms were like those of almost everyone else in the carnival. Callused along the base of the fingers, creases filled with the never-ending dirt that was impossible to escape. Skin, just skin. There was a thin scar on the fleshy part at the base of her right thumb and one running down the length of her middle finger, but still, it was only skin.

She turned her hands over and the tattoos flashed. Tiny stars, crosses, glyphs and other intricate symbols clustered on her fingers and swirled into the larger symbols on the backs of her hands, which spiraled around her wrists and began the covering of her entire body. Ruby flipped her hands back over. Only the palms of her hands, the soles of her feet and her face, for the most part, had been spared. The ink crept up her neck and ran along the length of her angular jaw, with a few subtle marks escaping upwards all the way to her hairline. The tattoos on her face were the most faded and now, more than ten years later from when it all began, her lucent gray eyes, like glittering chips of the sky collecting for a storm, were the brightest feature in her face.

"Flag's up!"

Jimbo's call that breakfast was ready rang out across the haphazard camp of sleeping tents, the long Ten-in-One and the wagons on the edge of the midway. Ruby hated being caught up in the morning rush for greasy biscuits and limp slabs of ham, but she knew that if she waited too long, there wouldn't even be a hot cup of coffee left. She tucked her shirt into her home-sewn trousers and rolled up the sleeves. Ruby knocked the dried mud and muck off her boots before pulling them on and jumping down into the space between the back of her wagon and the side of the illusion show tent. She trailed her fingers along the rough canvas flaps as she made her way through the backlot toward the chaos of the cookhouse.

The long tables scattered out in front of the cookhouse tent were crowded with carnival workers, as usual divided into their respective tribes. The talkers, roustabouts and some of the gamesmen, mostly hungover and grumbling, shot dirty looks over at the table the freaks had congregated around. Lead by Alicia, the Alligator Lady, and Marjorie, the Fat Woman, the freak table was always a cacophony of loudly voiced opinions, complaints and observations. Timothy was banging one giant fist, nearly the size of Ruby's head, and shaking the other in the face of Henry/Henrietta. Josephine had apparently brushed some of her long, silky beard into Bernard's plate of eggs and the Half-Man was indignant, twisting around on his torso, trying to bounce a few places down on the long wooden bench. Only Linus, the browbeaten Lizard Man and husband to the screeching Alicia, had his head down, focused on his breakfast. As Ruby poured her coffee, one of the newer rousties leaned back from his table and yelled across the cookhouse yard for Marjorie to dry up already. Ruby rolled her eyes, knowing that this would only make her louder.

The other rousties groaned and Ruby shook her head as she walked past with her coffee. There was a hierarchy in the carnival and the rousties knew they were at the bottom. A man pulling on a rope or driving a stake into the ground was a dime a dozen. A four hundred and fifty-seven pound woman who could also yodel was a much more precious commodity. The freaks weren't at the top of the totem pole, though. It was the performers who occupied the tables in the shade beneath the tent canopy. They were the most comfortable, and therefore the quietest, group as they made a point to display their civility in the face of barbaric conditions. The Flying Royal Russians whispered to each other in their own language and the clowns, Zero and Marco, were quietly reading the paper, searching for recent news they could parody in their act. Ruby had every right to sit with them; as Esmeralda the Serpent Enchantress, she was one of the Star Light's top performers, with her own show tent, and she had also been with the outfit longer than most. She skirted the performers' table just as she did the others, though, and sat by herself at one of the smaller tables at the edge of the muddy yard. The news was buzzing all around her and she wanted a moment by herself to comprehend what she was hearing and to think. She didn't get it.

"Oh my God, did you hear about the geek?"

Ruby hadn't even blown on her coffee yet to cool it. She sighed and leaned back, waiting for the svelte blonde to situate herself and her plate across the table. If it had been anyone else, Ruby most likely would have just gotten up and left. But this was January, the lead dancer in the Girl Revue and Ruby's closest friend. January wasn't even twenty-five, looked younger, and had a heart-shaped doll's face that was impossible to say no to. Ruby raised her eyebrows and carefully sipped her steaming coffee.

"I'm guessing that's what everyone is talking about."

January spoke through a mouthful of scrambled eggs.

"Oh, it's terrible. Absolutely terrible. Have you heard?"

Ruby tried to compose herself and keep her expression flat. She had known the glomming geek for a long time. She also knew, though, that it was probably better to hear the details from January than from someone else. January loved a sensation as much as anyone, but beneath her glamorous affectation was a depth of generosity and compassion. Ruby set her tin cup down and fingered the rim of it.

"What happened to the geek?"

January took another bite of eggs and then set her fork down beside her plate. She leaned forward on her elbows and whispered.

"He did himself in last night."

Ruby nodded slowly and frowned.

"Did himself in? You mean he killed himself?"

"Hung himself. Last night. That's what everyone is talking about. Tom got the details from Franklin this morning."

January looked over her shoulder toward the roustie table before continuing.

"Tom said that the geek hung himself from a tree in some townie's yard. Put the noose round his neck and stepped off a child's swing. I mean, can you imagine? Why would someone do such a stupid thing? Even if you are a disgusting geek who bites the heads off of chickens for a trade. How screwy do you have to be to just bump yourself off like that?"

Ruby didn't answer. January picked up her fork and poked at her cold eggs.

"Tom said it was the little girl who found him this morning. The geek. Woke up early and went out into the yard to get her dolly she'd left by the swing or something. Jesus Christ, poor kid. Having to see that. Tom said the geek must've been all bug-eyed, white as a ghost."

Ruby looked across the yard at Tom, sitting at the roustie table and shoveling ham and eggs into his mouth with a purpose. She turned back to January and snapped at her.

"And what else did Tom say? Since he seems to know everything."

January pursed her lips.

"Don't do that. Don't be ugly to me just because you don't like Tom."

Ruby dug into her shirt pocket and pulled out a box of matches and a squashed package of cigarettes.

"I could care less about Tom. Seriously. You want to spend your time with a shifty-eyed roustie who couldn't say no to a bet if his life depended on it and is probably only sweet-talking you because you make more in a blow-off than he can in a month? Go ahead. It's not my business."

Ruby held out a cigarette, but January only stared coldly back at her. Ruby shrugged her shoulders and put the cigarette to her lips. January finally sighed and pushed her plate away.

"Listen, what happened to the geek is awful. It's okay to be upset about it, but you don't got to take it out on me."

Ruby turned her head to the side and blew out a stream of smoke.


Excerpted from "Miraculum"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Steph Post.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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