His name is Rod Sterling, not Serling, but his Raleigh shop, The Little Leviathan, feels like something you'd find in The Twilight Zone. Hidden away at 212 Powell Drive in a nondescript office suite near the State Fairgrounds, it lurks behind a door ominously marked "Oddities."
Inside, it takes a moment to adjust to the sensory overload. What to look at first? The taxidermied mice in hilarious, unsettling poses? The glass case full of spiked undead-fighting weapons? The porcelain bedpan sitting in the chair by the door, filled with old medical devices? The dead animals preserved in jars of rubbing alcohol? In a back room, I find a sort of adorable (okay, I squealed) two-headed baby box turtle the size of a silver dollar.
"He's also got five fins," says Miranda Layne Almany, a magenta-haired employee who goes by The Soul Stealer. "See, it looks like he's patting his brother on the head." I turn it down, as it's $125 and my parents are about to visit.
Sterling—who prefers to be addressed as Mr. Sterling, while his manager goes by Macabro Dolore Borsellino—has run the store at its current location for two years. He and his crew are regulars at genre conventions, selling wares such as sculptures made from animal bones. There's an adorable Little Shop of Horrors-style "plant" with white turtle shells creating the giant Venus Flytrap mouth.
The store is like an antique mall run by Tim Burton, though the filmmaker might be too tame a comparison. Items you can buy from the store online include an X-ray machine called a fluoroscope that shoe salesmen once used to measure feet (and inadvertently give their customers cancer), a "Dying Man's Last Breath" preserved under glass and something simply described as "Atom Sculpture Made of Jawbones."
Mr. Sterling and company take me on a tour of the small but densely packed store, elegantly arranged like a museum ("Where you can buy the exhibits!" The Soul Stealer reminds me), showing me fossilized dinosaur feces, a chainmail corset, porcelain dental samples and a black mirror. There are also original pieces made for TV and film—the shop recently created a lyre and a cello made of (fake) bones for Fox's Sleepy Hollow. But the most fascinating items seem like remnants from an earlier time that was less innocent than it now seems.
"They seem to drift where they belong," Borsellino says of the shop's odd wares. "Everyone has some oddity from Grandma they don't know what to do with—that's where it all comes from."
Adds Mr. Sterling: "People will bring in a box full of Hardy Boys paperbacks, and at the bottom of it they'll have an 1878 glass prosthetic eye. That's what we want."
Some items are less esoteric. Next to a book of John Wayne Gacy clown paintings and antique illustrated surgery manuals, I'm greatly tempted by early editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and All Quiet on the Western Front, along with a classic Corona manual typewriter. I'd probably take off the voodoo-like photo with the whited-out eyes designed to be "tortured" by the pounding keys, though.
Though new visitors will experience a fair amount of shock and awe, the offensiveness of the place is relative; there's nothing more pornographic than some French editions of the Marquis de Sade's work, nor anything created from something worse than medical waste. "Most people who come in here and get scared are people who came in here expecting to be scared," says Borsellino.
Mr. Sterling is philosophical: "Most of what we do here is just revealing different sides of human nature," he says. "People will see things like these in their travels, but we just have them all in one place." He has a point. It's nice to know these things still exist, hidden in an office park by the fairgrounds. But I'll still pass on the two-headed dead turtle.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Little shop of horrors"Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the type of two-headed turtle found in the shop. It is a box turtle.