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.