Eight years have passed since Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City served up the adrenaline-cortisol martini that, in Hoosier parlance, pert near killed me. Though most of the fascinating details of Chicago history surrounding the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition have faded from my mind, a collection of grisly scenes from the book remain rooted deep beneath the cerebral cortex in the folds that house the fight or flight command center. Beyond its power to creep out my husband to the point where he refused to even touch the thing, the book’s brilliance lies in the way Larson makes the gore palatable, and even intriguing, by juxtaposing against heinous acts of evil incarnate, monumental striving for civic good.
At its heart, it’s a story about an underdog—Chicago, and in a broader sense America—and its fight to establish its place in the world as capable and modern, to find a way to outshine London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, redeem America from the bank-breaking Centennial Exhibition hosted by Philadelphia in 1876, and out-wow the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris defined by Gustave Eiffel’s engineering feat, a giant iron tower that bears his name.
But it’s also the tale of two men: a famous urban planner and America’s first identified serial killer, their interwoven stories set in the time and place of the Chicago World’s Fair.
The drama surrounding the politics of the time, the bid for the event and subsequent scramble for funds, and the architectural development of a city twenty-two years earlier destroyed by fire are fascinating enough to hold a reader’s attention for nearly 400 pages, but the details branded in my mind are the detritus of a sociopath’s trail of terror: a woman’s footprints on a lead door inside an air-tight vault, a building with slanted floors and narrow, uneven hallways at odd, inexact angles and stairways to nowhere, an Exposition hotel constructed with the sole purpose to lure prey, built by a madman within earshot of the slaughterhouses on the south side of Chicago. Screaming cattle provided the soundtrack. Chutes from gas chambers where bodies would slide into pits of lime or vats of acid, a device the villain (who must not be named) used to clean skeletons he sold as models to medical schools.
With a strong sense of narrative and the ability to animate history, Larson lures the reader to invest in the Chicago storyline to the extent that she will tolerate the gruesome parallel plot; and to abandon the story would be to abandon the underdog, so even the most squeamish reader stays with it. That reader is the same person who walked out of that Meryl Streep-David Straithairn river-rafting movie, the one with a menacing, Deliverance-esque Kevin Bacon, because it was too violent. I barely tolerated Dave Eggers’ “What Is the What,” with starving boys being eaten by lions as they trek on foot to freedom outside Sudan, and “Zeitoun,” with starving dogs and innocent men mistaken for terrorists caged at the New Orleans bus station. Both of those books ooze injustice, and the details still take up space in my mind and tug at my sense of empathy, but not with the stranglehold of the horrors of “Devil.”
Of course, this coming from the woman with a super-inflated sense of empathy, the one who, as a child, felt sorry for, and therefore could not dispose of, school papers, baby teeth and even chicken pox scabs, scabs with names and feelings and personalities: Carl, Rosie, Jeffrey, Dawn. My friends the scabs. I felt too intensely; still do. “You’re too sensitive,” was the defining message broadcast my first eighteen years. The same quality that led me to become the counselor in my social setting and eventually grad school and work in a role that capitalized on those empathic impulses makes me too sensitive for some literature.
One evening, when my son was in the Harry Potter years, I read the first four chapters of the first book and was tormented all night, by night terrors and vivid dreams in which demons pursued me to the edge of seaside cliffs. Given my previous, near-death experience with Larson’s book, I trashed Potter. Which is what I should have done with Devil after the first murder, but it was too well written, the history too compelling. I couldn’t stop reading, let alone throw it away. And, with few exceptions (a signed Dan Quayle memoir gifted to me by an old boyfriend), I am morally opposed to the disposing of books. They are sacred objects. But Devil was not just an object; for weeks it sat on my bedside table, charged with a power to kill.
The onset of my chest pressure coincided with the weeks preceding the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair. The killer has moved his (second) wife to live on Honore Avenue, in Bucktown, on the same street where my stepdaughter lived at the time. I would read in bed and wake with a heaviness in the center of my chest. I’d have to sit up to make room for air. I’d practice deep breathing before I could go back to sleep, but I didn’t have nightmares. In the middle of the fourth night in a row of this chest pressure nonsense, I tapped my husband and told him, “I’m having trouble breathing.” He rolled over and told me to have fun at the emergency room. I lay back down and fell back to sleep.
The tension over the build-up of the World’s Fair kept me reading. How would it turn out? Would people come? Would the buildings stand? Would the Ferris Wheel work? Will the fair lose money? Would Daniel Burnham, the urban planner and architect who designed the Flat Iron building in New York and Union Station in D.C. succeed in pulling off the construction of the dazzling white city and secure America’s place in the world? Will Frederick Olmstead, the father of landscape architecture whose credits include the Biltmore estate, campuses of Stanford, Cal Berkley, and dozens of others, and parks from Central Park to Niagara, beat senility in the race to complete the planning and planting of the grounds in the swampy, inhospitable grounds of Jackson Park? Will someone CATCH the monster killing the women, men, and children? Eek! Now he’s in Irvington, Indiana, a 20-minute drive from my house? Will somebody please find those babies before they’re buried alive, or worse? Night after night, in short snippets before bed, I kept reading.
I won’t give away the ending, but multiple tragedies marked the end of the fair: smallpox, assassination, more death, and fire. On a Thursday night in June, I closed the book and set it on my bedside table. “Oh. My. Gosh,” I said to my husband with an urgency usually reserved for times when I really need to get his attention. “You have. To read this book.” The next night, with no cardiac history and no physical risk factors, I was in the hospital with a ninety-five percent blockage in my lower anterior descending artery. In the morning I woke up in Cardiac ICU with a handsome young cardiologist in my face saying, “Mrs. Bates? You’ve had a heart attack.”
Eight years later, I’m steering clear of Erik Larson but adored his book, even if it did pert near kill me.