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.

Continue reading “Fantasy beasts”

When the hurlyburly’s done

1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont
1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont

Ray Bradbury Something Wicked This Way Comes
Gollancz 2008 (1962)

This is a haunting novel, a haunting not necessarily due to ghosts but to images and ideas lingering in the mind’s eye long after the last page is shut. The title (taken from words spoken by the Second Witch in Macbeth) sets the tenor of the story, as much a novel of magic realism as it is a tale of terror. The horror is compounded by being set in an ordinary and very provincial early 1930s town in Illinois where, one is supposed to assume, nothing much happens. Continue reading “When the hurlyburly’s done”

The town clock struck seven


The town clock struck seven.
The echoes of the great chime wandered in the unlit halls of the library.
An autumn leaf, very crisp, fell somewhere in the dark.
But it was only the page of a book, turning.

In Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, in Chapter 37 in the midst of the middle section of the book entitled ‘Pursuits’, Charles Halloway is described trying to make sense of the extraordinary events he has been witnessing. As janitor of Green Town’s Library he has the run of the building after it has closed, and over a few hours he has been fetching what he sees as the

… most important books … which he arranged in a great literary clock on a table, like someone learning to tell a new time. So he paced round and round the huge clock squinting at the yellowed pages as if they were mothwings pinned dead to the wood.

Clocks are the measure of time, and the presence of Time in the novel is huge. The year’s approaching a great turning point, the definitive arrival of autumn and the dark six months of the the sun’s cycle through the heavens; the summer’s true return will not be marked until Walpurgis Night, half a year away on May Eve. Now it is but a few days before Halloween, the night before All Hallows or All Saints Day, and devilry is afoot. Charles has laid out his books as though playing a game of Clock Patience. Some positions are specified (11, 2, 6, 9), one at least is kept vague (“very late up the literary clock”), at the centre Charles imagines the words spoken by the Witches in Macbeth:

By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes

  1. ?
  2. Occult Iconography
  3. ? portrait of the Prince of Darkness
  4. ? sketches of the Temptations of St Anthony
  5. ? etchings from Giovanbatista Bracelli’s Bizarie (curious toys, humanlike robots engaged in alchemical rites)
  6. (A history of circuses, carnivals, shadow shows, puppet menageries inhabited by mountebanks, minstrels, stilt-walking sorcerers and their fantoccini)
  7. ?
  8. ?
  9. By Demons Possessed; Egyptian Philtres; Torments of the Damned; The Spell of Mirrors
  10. ? Locomotives and Trains; The Mystery of Sleep; Between Midnight and Dawn;
  11. Dr Faustus
  12. ? Physiognomie. The secrets of the individual’s character as found in his face

This provincial library is clearly an extraordinary one to include so many obscure tomes; for Will and Jim “there’s nothing in the living world like books on water cures, deaths-of-a-thousand-slices, or pouring white-hot lava off castle walls on drolls and mountebanks,” but the titles Charles has dug out are way beyond the usual reference books one would expect to find in the stacks. Others may have researched whether Bradbury has based these on existing publications, but for most of us they clearly reveal how Charles is trying to find significant patterns in the scant clues he has at hand: Dark & Cooger’s carnival arriving at three in the morning, a mirror maze that effects transformations, the parade through the town and its near ubiquitous nature, an illustrated man with kinetic tattoos.

For Jim and Will (thirteen, soon to be fourteen), and for Will’s father Charles, “Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight. […] And that was the October week when they grew up overnight, and were never so young any more …” Can Charles find the secret in these library books before time runs out for them? I shall try in a review to point the way, but I’m not sure the answer necessarily lies in book knowledge. Only experience will do.