The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney
Published by Bison Books / University of Nebraska Press
With an Introduction by Michael Martone and a Forward by John Marco
ISBN: 978 0 8032 349 4 9
Review by Mark Yon
This is a great reissue by Bison Books.
First published in 1935, The Circus of Dr. Lao is a marvel: or as John Marco so rightly puts it in his introduction, ‘an obscure classic’. (page xvii)
Though Charles Finney published other novels and stories, this (his first) is perhaps his most famous, though even this is not all that well known. Like many others, I suspect, I know it personally through The 7 Faces of Doctor Lao, the George Pal movie of 1964 starring Tony Randall in the titular multitude of roles, though even that is quite hard to get hold of these days.
However the book itself is a richer and more complex experience.
It tells of a visit to the small town of Abalone in Arizona by a circus. A circus that appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and promises spectacles that are unparalleled by any other touring extravaganza.
The book begins in what we would now see as a small-town USA / Stephen King kind of way, as the town’s inhabitants read of the circus through an advertisement placed mysteriously in the town’s newspaper. The book shows us the effects of the circus on various members of the Abalone community, amongst them the newspaper printer and copy editor, a local schoolteacher, the children of the town and a down-and-out (this was the time of the Great Depression) recently discharged from the Army, amongst others.
Promising wonders never before seen, the circus actually reveals to the townspeople the mythical made real, their future, and their hopes and fears realised before disappearing again. There is a sea serpent, a roc, a Medusa, a werewolf, and even an ancient God.
Whilst holding up a mirror to the good and bad that 1930’s society can bring, it is also moralistic, with an ending that matches the eeriness of the main plot.
Some of the language is Bradbury-poetic, lyrical and obscure. It’s not every day that you read the word ‘pulchritude’, even less so on the first page of the novel. It is also deliberately ambiguous in its plot, a book that doesn’t explain everything and doesn’t finish with an ending that ties everything up, though it is apt. It even poses some questions at the end not answered in the book!
In terms of plot, well, it’s rather nebulous. You could cut it to ‘weird circus arrives, people see the exhibits, then circus leaves’, but there’s so much more than that. What we have is a series of experiences that the inhabitants are affected by. It is a book that, though short, is worth savouring and then re-reading.
It is also much more adult than I remember the film being. There are comments on pornography and the erotic, which are perhaps more explicit, though tame by today’s standards.
There are other elements that have dated less well: for example, Doctor Lao is often referred to as ‘a Chink’, which may settle uneasily on today’s more sophisticated reader. Nevertheless, as an indicator of the time, and language used then, if not now, I was able to work with it, feeling that the term reflected a small-town mentality exhibited in the book.
Unlike other more recent editions, the Bison Second Edition has been published with its original first volume illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff, which are odd, but totally in tune with the surreal aspects of the book.
There are no chapters but appropriate gaps in the text where necessary. The last twenty-five pages or so are called ‘The Catalogue’ – a dictionary list of the humans, the animals the icons, the foodstuffs and the places visited in the Circus. Totally unnecessary, yet somehow suitable for the book.
Weird, unusual and sadly affecting, this book gave me that Bradbury-esque feeling of sense of wonder, that sense of innocence and the fact that just ‘to believe’ is sometimes enough. Partly religious allegory, perhaps, partly satire, it is a book most definitely worth reading. I found it more than I was expecting – imaginative, bizarre, creepy, amusing, charming, quaint, and oddly unsettling.
If you think of Fantasy as being predominantly Sword and Sorcery or Tolkienesque, then this might broaden your perspective. For a book out on the limits, even seventy-five years on, and if you want to push your sense of what is Fantasy reading, then this is a must.
Mark Yon, June 2011.