March 27, 2017

Watzek Special Collections Unveils New Exhibition

The Horror of Normalcy: Katherine Dunn, Geek Love, and Cult Literature opens to the public April 4. This exhibition provides a first look at the literary archive of the cult Portland author, who arranged to bequeath her collection to Lewis & Clark before her death in 2016.

The Horror of Normalcy: Katherine Dunn, Geek Love, and Cult Literature opens to the public April 4. The exhibition explores her novel Geek Love and the reaction it elicited from readers through the personal and literary artifacts that have given Katherine Dunn status as a cult author and Portland treasure. Following the launch reception in Watzek Library, the exhibition—curated by visiting Assistant Professor of English Michael Mirabile—will run through August 2017.    

In 2015, Lewis & Clark Special Collections and Archives staff worked with Dunn to acquire and process her collection. The launch reception will premiere both the archive and the exhibition, allowing unprecedented visibility into the creative process of the influential writer.

The collection includes early versions and translated copies of Dunn’s novels Attic (1970), Truck (1971), and Geek Love (1989), as well as notes, fan mail, and correspondence with and critiques by other cult authors such as Bret Easton Ellis, Gus Van Sant, and Stephen King. In addition to original material, the exhibition includes Dunn’s collection of Geek Love fan art as weird and macabre as the novel itself.

Geek Love, which was a finalist for the 1989 National Book Award, emerged in a culturally distinct time in American history. The exhibition will pay respect to its place in time, a year that also saw the release of Bret Easton Ellis’ critically-acclaimed dark novel American Psycho.

“We were mainly considering 1989 as part of a general historical arc, which included the years of the 1980s and 1990s, for the development of cult fiction in American literature,” explains Mirabile. “The time period was marked by intense fan enthusiasm around a select number of books and authors. And much of our exhibit is focused on the response from enthusiastic readers to Geek Love, as a sign of a “cult”-like devotion to the novel.”

At the time of publication, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote, “This audacious, mesmerizing novel should carry a warning: ‘Reader Beware.’ Those entering the world of [its] carnival freaks… will find no escape from a story at once engrossing and repellent, funny and terrifying, unreal and true to human nature.”

The exhibition also draws on Lewis & Clark’s tradition of faculty-student collaborative work with the involvement of English major Sydney Owada ’19. Mirabile agrees that the collaboration has been a “productive division of labor” with Owada selecting material and contextualizing it through captions.

Owada says her work on the exhibition has influenced her thoughts about her career path, valuing her “increased understanding of the curation process as well as the fine tuning of my organizational and analytic skills” as practical training for her future.  

According to Mirabile, the exhibition highlights the hometown influence of Portland on her work and the cult following she found within the city. Dunn, who hosted a show on the community radio station KBOO and wrote for the iconic alternative weekly newspaper Willamette Week for two decades, both shaped and was shaped by the City of Roses. Dunn passed away on May 11, 2016, at age 70 from complications of lung cancer.

English Department

Special Collections & Archives

Collaborative Research at Lewis & Clark 

This story was written by Scout Brobst ’20.