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Three Great Books With Freaky Circuses In Them

I can only think of two actual circuses that I’ve been to. One as a child, one as a 25 year old with my niece in tow. I don’t remember the first time and have few recollections of the second, although I do remember the tune that played every time the clowns came out. It ended with a long, slow slide whistle. There were also men riding motorcycles on the inside of iron spheres, a dancing goat, some trapeze artists, and more.

What it did not have was the stuff of these three novels. I can see why writers see the circus as such fertile ground, particularly in the horror genre, although not all of these books play as straight horror.

When I lift weights, the movements that benefit me the most are usually the opposite of what I spend most of my days doing. Hips extended instead of seated. Arms behind me, versus in front of me on the computer keyboard. I feel the same way about the things I read and write about, and I find the circus to be close to the opposite of what I (and I suspect, these writers) my life is like.

Geek Love

click for the freakshow

The world of the circus and the carnival is full of roamers. Masks. Caged animals. Nocturnal people. Strange lighting and sleight of hand. Also, it is a world that appeals to the imagination. Using the imagination is also something that resembles the opposite of what too many lives are like. It is one of the reasons I write this blog–it is an outlet that keeps me from becoming another office slave.

Anyway, whether any of that makes sense or not, I’ve read a few great books featuring circuses of carnivals in the last five years. I would like you to read them as well.

1. The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliot

A man named Jamie has a bizarre encounter while driving home from work. Then another later on. Still more, more events, and more clowns. Then he awakes to a scene I won’t spoil for you with a note–You have two days to pass your audition.

The note is signed by the head clown from The Pilo Family Circus. I can’t say much more about the plot except that Will does join the circus and it’s…something else. Well–I’ll say one more thing. Every time he puts the facepaint on, he becomes someone else. Someone nasty.

2. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Indescribable outside of these words and phrases:

  • Yuck
  • Ewwww
  • Wonderful
  • Unlike anything else

Dunn wrote the introduction to Pilo, which is why I originally grabbed it. Her own book is about a family of circus freaks. The mother sees it as her duty to create more attractions, so she ingests what she must during her many pregnancies to keep the family in business. One of her children rises to great heights and forms one of the freakiest cults in literature.

This description is an exceedingly poor indicator of what’s in Geek Love. Just try it. You’ll know right away whether you’re in or out.

3. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Kind of the flip side to the love letter to childhood that was Dandelion Wine. Something Wicked is more of a love letter to the things that scare kids and the pain of moving into young adulthood.

Jim and William get into a bit of trouble when a freak-out of a carnival comes to town, led by the wonderfully named “Mr. Dark.” He’s got all of his poor workers in thrall to him, and however he’s doing it, it’s not because of his kind and generous nature. Now he wants the boys.

A wonderful story, and Will’s father just happens to work in a library.

Other circus cultural artifacts

The circus in Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants isn’t quite strange enough to be frightening, but the book is great and the world she presents is still alien to me.

Listen to The Carny by Nick Cave, or at least read the lyrics. Weird weird weird.

Okay, what have I left out or not heard of? Any circus-related books out there that we should all be reading?

Oh, wait…Leo Rosten also compiled a humorous anthology of quotes called Carnival of Wit, but the ratio of Oscar Wilde to Grouch Marx is way out o whack, so indulge at your sanity’s peril!


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Frankie Faires February 2, 2011, 12:25 pm

    I’ve actually read Geek Love believe it or not.

  • Amanda February 3, 2011, 4:15 am

    The Resurrectionists by Jack O’Connell is a truly confronting novel that winds in fictional circus freaks on the run, with the desperate tale of a man trying to revive his 6-year old son from a coma.

    A book you’ll never forget.

  • Chris B February 3, 2011, 9:58 am

    Having spent several years in the circus myself, I always have mixed feelings about books like these. So many people get “circus” and “carnival” and “freak show” all mushed up together when they are TOTALLY different cultural/familial milieus. And I firmly believe that everyone who writes about evil clowns is one of those kids who was scarred for life when their parents FORCED them to get close to a clown when they were little. ;p
    However, I loved “Water for Elephants”. You’re right that it is an alien world for most people, but she got it RIGHT – which almost never happens with someone who isn’t actually “with it”.
    For the best way to listen to Nick Cave’s “The Carney” – and see a really good circus movie to boot – go get Wim Wenders 1987 film “Wings of Desire”. He starts it with a reading of a wonderful poem by Peter Handke who co-wrote the script.

    • Josh Hanagarne February 3, 2011, 7:27 pm

      Chris, what did you do for the circus?

      • Chris B February 4, 2011, 7:58 am

        I was a “box-jumper” in a small magic show – you know, the girl who jumps out of the boxes. 😉
        And then I was a showgirl for both an indoor (arena) show and a tent show – aka “the real circus” – which meant I rode elephants, did some light aerial work and basically fulfilled the term “generally useful”.

  • ami February 3, 2011, 4:50 pm

    Pilo Family Circus was so far out . . . somewhere. What a trip – a book I hope never to read again, yet one I think about with disturbing frequency. The beginning and middle were pretty good – thought the end got too jumbled.

    Loved Water for Elephants. Sara Gruen really captured the spirit of circus workers without descending to caricature.

  • Jim Janney February 8, 2011, 11:55 am

    I don’t know how to describe it, but I like The Circus of Dr Lao, by Charles G. Finney. Being impossible to describe may be the mark of a good circus book.