Ryan Holt; Polis Books
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August 03, 2018 at 02:17 PM EDT

A traveling carnival in 1922 is wending its way through the backroads of the South, starting in Louisiana and headed to Georgia. It’s a family operation, and it welcomes the weird and wonderful characters that it picks up along the way.

But there’s an unusual new traveler accompanying them this time. A finely dressed, handsome man named Daniel who has a bizarre hobby: He likes to snap the heads off chickens with his teeth. He’s a peculiar attraction for sure — the gentleman geek.

Ruby, the daughter of the carnival’s owner and ringmaster, doesn’t trust this new stranger. She’s the resident snake charmer, and there is something in Daniel’s soul that slithers. His intentions prove to be darker than anyone but her suspects.

This is the set-up for Miraculum, the new gothic fantasy from author Steph Post, previously known for the literary crime novels A Tree Born Crooked, and the Judah Cannon series Lightwood and Walk in the Fire.

Miraculum, debuting Jan. 22, is now available for pre-sale, and EW has the cover reveal and first excerpt from this supernatural story of Southern mysticism and sinister fantasy.

“What I love about it is that it’s gritty and glamorous at the same time, which really reflects the two characters,” Post says. “Ruby is this very hardened, jaded person. Daniel is this very glamorous, almost Hollywood-type of figure. We go from traveling on the road in the dirt in the dust, and barely having electricity, to this 1920s hotel in Atlanta that’s just over the top and a very ritzy setting. It’s really a combination of those two things.”

Ryan Holt

Miraculum is also a coming-of-age story, but one aimed at adults. “I wanted this to be a story for people my age,” says Post, who is 36. “It’s about someone that’s midway through her life. That was important to me, to be able to tell a story about adults that are going through transformation.”

Working as the resident snake charmer is actually Ruby’s fallback job. “She’s also a completely tattooed woman. But a failed tattooed woman,” Post says. “That’s because her tattoos are not the sort that you would normally see in a carnival. They’re very symbolic, tribal in a way.”

Tattooed women were an exotic rarity in the 1920s, and a major carnival draw, but the art was usually more like portraiture. “I did a lot of research about this, and one woman had all the presidents tattooed on her,” Post says. “She used lots of bright colors. Very traditional. What we would think of now as Sailor Jerry-type tattoos.”

Ruby’s inscrutable, esoteric symbols, imprinted on her when she was just a teenager, may not attract the usual lookie-loos, but they have a deeper meaning that the story eventually reveals.

For now, here’s where Miraculum begins:

Polis Books
CHAPTER 1

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.

 

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