Fantasy beasts

Circus scene, 1930s

Charles G Finney: The Circus of Dr Lao
Introduction by Michael Dirda
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2016 (1935)

How to categorise this extraordinary fantasy? Its style is hard to pin down precisely, its subject matter diffuse, its denouement unclear, its cast of characters largely unlikeable.

That acknowledged, it nevertheless is said to have inspired Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) and was loosely adapted as a film entitled 7 Faces of Dr Lao. Its faint influence may even, I fancy, be detected in J K Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts films.

Perhaps the best way to approach the structure of this dark fantasy with comic and satiric elements is through the very nature of its subject matter: as a series of sideshows followed by a final circus spectacle.

We are in the town of Abalone, Arizona during the Great Depression. An advert in the local paper informs readers that Dr Lao’s circus is coming to town, and we are given a series of vignettes on how various inhabitants react to the notice. The next stage describes how these various individuals view the parade that trundles through the town, followed by their reactions to the sideshow exhibits. And what exhibits they are! A werewolf; a sea serpent; Medusa; a mermaid; a giant egg from Sinbad’s Roc; the fortune-telling magician Apollonius of Tyana; a chimaera; a sphinx. There’s more: a faun, and a satyr; a Russian who might be a bear, and one of the Sirens; witches; and so on. All are introduced, described or explained by the enigmatic Dr Lao himself.

And then we come to the final circus show, and it’s as if the screen has expanded to Cinemascope, the tints transformed from a muted Eastmancolor to glorious Technicolor, and the Big Top’s fourth wall dissolved.

The novel is full of ambiguities which give it character and the permission to be outrageous. Finney simultaneously and rather cynically mocks the small-mindedness of provincial towns, especially the inability to see beyond one’s limited experience and imagination, as well as exposing the prejudices and stereotypical attitudes that can take root there.

So it is that Dr Lao without warning segues from informed discourse about his exhibits to the kind of pidgin English that past comvention expected to issue from ‘Oriental’ mouths. Then when Apollonius performs actual miracles his audience—who are expecting a sleight-of-hand conjurer—are mightily disappointed. Further, lewd spectators feel short-changed when the werewolf they’re expecting to metamorphose into a nubile young woman turns out to be an aged crone.

The circus show mayn’t turn out to be what either audience or, probably, readers are anticipating, but Finney isn’t—any more than Dr Lao or his menagerie—remotely interested in their reactions, to gauge from the final sentence:

And into the dust and the sunshine the people of Abalone went homewards or wherever else they were going.

The Circus of Dr Lao is very much a take-it-or-leave-it novel. Myself, I enjoyed it: the inhabitants of Abalone were a rum bunch, from intellectuals to red necks, and as varied and exotic as the exhibits they’d come to see. The menagerie have their own stories to tell, some of them in their own voices. There were some dubious instances of exotica shading into erotica that reflect on casually racist attitudes eighty years ago, even for an well-travelled news editor like Finney, but the flights of imaginations here are what impresses.

Michael Dirda in his introduction compares reading the novel to “listening to the melodious cacophony of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue” but then suggests that, though fun, it will strike most readers as “a bit unsatisfying” because it “blurs genres”, with fantasy, satire and drollery combining in “a metafictional experiment”.

That’s as may be; dark fantasy is the genre that Finney is apparently more often associated with, but Circus felt to me more like comic fantasy. This is especially evident in the the endnote catalogue (“An explanation of the obvious which must be read to be appreciated”) which wittily defines every character—male, female and child—in the novel, plus animals, deities, cities, ritual objects and foodstuffs, along with a section on “questions and contradictions and obscurities” in the fantasy, all in a style reminiscent of the great Ambrose Bierce.

Abalone is a thinly disguised Tucson, this last where in reality Finney was a newspaperman in the 1930s. An abalone is actually a sea mollusc; this may be a snide indication of how the author may have felt about his adopted town, but we’re also reminded of Avalon, the name of several US towns inspired by the mythical Arthurian island. He’d also recently returned from a stint in the US army in China (a note tells us the novel was written between 1929 and 1934 in both Tientsin and Tucson) so among all the novel’s phantasmagoria there are genuine personal observations of that part of the world.

So, in summary, Circus is an idiosyncratic bit of fiction, but its virtue is that it’s short for a novel (or, if you prefer, longish for a novella): while there are no separate chapters it does feel as though you’re indeed strolling through a carnival show, checking your watch, a puzzled look on your suburban face.

26 thoughts on “Fantasy beasts

    1. Exactly, Ola, and ‘metafictional’ is exactly the way to describe it: the exhibits discuss themselves, the townsfolk react to the exhibits, we furrow our brows contemplating the narrative and Charles Finney from the other side of death smirks at our confusion. A real cabinet of curiosities!

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  1. Pingback: Fantasy beasts — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

    1. I tell you what struck me most at the time of reading, Dale, it was the sense of peeking into an intelligent mind of eighty years ago, a kind of psychological archaeology. Finney’s fierce intellectualism and prejudices, life experiences and love-hate attitude to his fellow citizens—all came through as strongly as the story he was telling.

      It’s what I like about reading classics, that glimpse into minds that are similar yet strange, a different sameness rather than same difference (if that makes any sense at all!).

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  2. Very interesting! The way you describe the shape of this story reminds me, quite obliquely but strongly, of Jim Crace’s novel Quarantine. The way there are different people who come to a place with all different reasons and needs to have a particular experience and then leave again. It’s been many years since I read it but it had quite an effect on me at the time. It makes me think I would enjoy “Circus” too. Have you read Quarantine? Do you see any similarity between the two stories?

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    1. No, Quarantine is not a title I’ve come across before, Jo, and Jim Crace sounds like an author I should know but the name doesn’t ring any bells just now. Sounds interesting, though, and I would certainly look out for it, maybe even do some sleuthing now… 😁


    2. I’ve now looked up the Crace and see what you mean—there are structural similarities but I’d imagine the respective tones are completely different, Circus being utterly satirical while the Crace is more serious. Actually, the plot summary of Quarantine reminds me strongly of Sartre’s play Huis Clos where a bunch of people are in a kind of waiting room which turns out to be Limbo, leading to the observation that ‘Hell is other people’ because they simply don’t get on. I saw this as a student many decades ago and now fancy revisiting it!


      1. I think Crace is quite serious. I see what you mean about Huis Clos having similarities. I wonder if the writers of Channel 4’s “The Good Place” which has the same basic idea, based their TV series on the Sartre play? It does sound very interesting!


        1. Now I’ve had to look up ‘The Good Place’ to get your reference! I can see the conceptual similarity to the Sartre play, but without watching it I wouldn’t know whether there was likely to be a direct link.


  3. One of my favorites, so I’m glad to see you do the book justice. Way back in my energetic college days, I adapted it for the stage, and a friend directed the production. Two performances. Somehow, news of my work found its way to a publisher, who asked to consider the script for publication. Alas, no joy. HIs verdict: it would be impossible to produce on stage.

    And yes, I immediately got the irony, and also figured Finney would have appreciated it.

    And no, my adaptation was NOTHING like the film version, which is an abomination. Tony Randall portrays Dr Lao, the serpent, Pan, Medusa, Apollonius, Merlin (because 2 magicians are better than 1?), and the Abominable Snowman (the Russian/bear) — thus the “7 faces”.


    1. ‘Impossible to produce on stage’—hah! I would have loved to have seen one or both of your college performances, Lizzie. From the YouTube trailers alone I would absolutely avoid the feature-length film: the teasers were appalling and simply didn’t match the atmosphere, aesthetic or (I would guess) the arc of the novel, judging from the inclusion of a young protagonist (why? why?! Insert interrobangs ad lib here).

      And the sheer outrageousness of having an occidental playing Dr Lao—were there no Chinese actors available? I suppose the thematic shift from ‘circus’ to ‘seven faces’ dictated the casting, but what a travesty of the original satire. It’s sad to note that Goodreads is full of reviews stating that this was the writer’s favourite movie from their youth; that says a lot less about the novel than it does about them, in my view.

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  4. Pingback: Was it a bear or a Russian or what? | Lizzie Ross

  5. Very interesting. I remember feeling greatly affected by Bradbury’s “Something Wicked this way Comes,” and I assumed he was influenced by Shakespeare’s MacBeth but never heard of this. Weirdness provokes weirdness, I guess. 😊

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    1. I’d never heard of it either, Andy, till the title on a library bookshelf grabbed my attention. The Macbeth influence in SWTWC (apart from the witch) never struck me as particularly significant, though Bradbury’s choice of title was certainly apposite! I suppose if I thought hard about it I might see other possible links, but it might involve some convoluted thinking on my part… 😁

      Funfairs and circuses seem to have been a lot more common in times past, though—I can’t remember the last time I was aware of travelling shows like that—but they will have been familiar in our childhoods, I’m sure, in the US as much as the UK. So many towns over here have roads called ‘Fairfield this or that’ which, if they didn’t simply mean the field was fine to look at, would have been a space set aside for periodic visits by shows like Dr Lao’s and Strange & Dark’s. (Well, perhaps not that weird, but strange enough for kids to not feel too comfortable.)

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