Columns > Published on September 20th, 2013

LURID: Dread And Circuses

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Everyone has a secret circus tent, pitched somewhere on the wastelands of nightmare and childhood memory, where the something of polite consciousness meets the nothing of what lies beneath.  It’s where we keep our last vestiges of belief, that aerialists can fly, jugglers can breathe fire, the Great Memento can read minds, Hercules really is the World’s Strongest Man, and eighteen elastic clowns all go shopping in one tiny car.  The circus tent is our refuge when reality strips us of our sense of wonder – the boom of a brass band, the taste of burnt sugar and the stench of tiger piss restore the credulous child inside.

Circuses run on faith.  Once we pass through the gates, even the most world-weary rube becomes a true believer.   We approach the midway knowing the gaudy signs declaring You Won’t Believe Your Eyes! Miracles of Science And Nature! are at best exaggeration and at worst, downright lies.  We know, in our higher minds, this is tawdry illusion, tricks they do with mirrors, but the circus bypasses logic and sings instead to our lizard brain.  With each bite of cotton candy we willingly suspend our disbelief.

No, this delicious hotdog isn’t smushed together from pig lips and ass! Yes, the lady with a fish-tail was caught in a net off Long Island! Absolutely, that’s the World’s Fattest Toddler! The Tallest Man! The Tiniest Midget! The Fastest Human Cannonball! Roll up, roll up, don’t straggle at the back now, take your seats for The Greatest Show On Earth!

With the suspension of disbelief comes vulnerability, a sneaking suspicion the bleachers aren’t quite strong enough to support this overflowing crowd.  We fear we creak above a bottomless pit, suspended on thin strings of impossibility, much like the canvas soaring above our heads. To survive, we must put our faith in the moustachioed master wielding a whip, because catastrophe – for the star-spangled trapeze artist, for the man with his head in the lion’s mouth, for the bullet-catching dwarf – is only a split-second miscalculation and a horrified gasp away.  We banish doubt with laughter and applause. We become slaves to the spectacle, and may not regain our powers of critical thought until long after we’ve bumbled home.  If at all.

The circus, especially through its shadow self, the sideshow, also offers a window on the grotesque, and appeals to writers of a lurid inclination.

The Ancient Romans gave us the word ‘circus’, meaning ‘circular arena in which all manner of blood was spilled and violence perpetrated in the name of cheap thrills’.  Upstanding togaed citizens put aside their reasoned discourse, abandoned the most excellent sanitation of their homes, and, along with their slaves, crowded to the circus on high days and holidays to become part of a howling mob.  Death – the more drawn-out, exhausting, and gore-stained the better – of gladiators and animals was primetime entertainment, although, as ever, clowns provided moments of comic relief amid the disemboweled corpses.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, no one could afford to present such spectacles, although the bloody gladiatorial tradition lived on in smaller-scale dog, bear, cock and bullfights – where it survives to this day.  People still needed to blow off steam via mindless-but-fun mass entertainment, however.   The void was filled by traveling bands of  ‘gleemen’ – jugglers, clowns, balladeers – who roamed from town to village to town.  During the centuries of feudalism, most people lived their lives attached to a single piece of land, and these merry minstrels were among the few strangers they ever encountered.  The gleemen provided a rare and welcome thrill. 

Naturally, these travelers were Others, emerging without warning as the sun went down and disappearing before dawn. They bowed to no lord, paid no tithe, confessed to no priest. They carried new ideas and new diseases in their caravans; Black Death or heresy – take your pick. To many a peasant, laboring long hours to keep the wolf from the door, the band of troubadours represented a delicious dream.  The shows, by firelight, evoked love, anarchy, magic, freedom, the more pleasurable mysteries of life.  By the seventeenth century, traveling performers attached themselves to fairs, the free-for-all market/religious festival/agricultural celebration/riot providing loosely regulated commerce and carnival entertainment for anything up to ten weeks before upping stakes and moving on. When the fair left town, existence seemed a little more dreary – until the next caravan train rolled around.

Dust when it was dry. Mud when it was rainy.  Swearing, steaming, sweating, scheming, bribing, bellowing, cheating, the carny went its way.  It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns – lights and noise and the chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the ferris wheel, to see the wild man who fondles those reptiles as a mother would fondle her babes.  Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice cream spoons to show where it had been.” Nightmare Alley

The modern circus has its roots in the late eighteenth century, when Philip Astley, a talented horseman, decided it was better to perform his daredevil tricks riding in a circle than in a straight line.  The audience could see the riders at all times, and the centrifugal force was an added bonus for ease of balancing acts.  The London crowds loved it, so he developed the circus ring as we know it, adding musicians, clowns, jugglers, tumblers, tightrope walkers, and dancing dogs to Astley's Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts to keep the crowds amused.  The show was so successful that the formula was adopted internationally, across cultural and language barriers – truly global entertainment.

The circus thrived in North America, where ringmasters competed to put the biggest, most spectacular shows together, using three rings filled with acts performing simultaneously, covered by a giant tent, the big top.  The tent structure led to the addition of trapeze artists performing death-defying feats above the audience’s head, and more than a century before Animal Planet, the crowds gawped at exotic animals (lions, tigers, zebras and elephants, oh my!) on the ground.  A night at the circus was truly marvelous, spectacle on a level not seen since the days of the unholy Romans. 

 Despite being billed as the ultimate in family entertainment, and outwardly oozing charm and respectability (the biggest circus bosses were extremely wealthy and powerful people), the circus held fast to its dark side.  The sheer scale of the three-ring show plus the constant pressure to out-do competitors made for enormous operating expenses.  The owners wanted to maximize profit where possible, and that meant offering something for everyone as long as the circus was in town.  The sequined pzazz of equestrian and trapeze acts wasn’t to all tastes.  When you’ve seen one clown juggling fire on top of an elephant on top of a rolling ball, you’ve seen them all.  So other tents were pitched in the shadow of the big top, the sideshow, a haven for acts unable or unwilling to perform under bright lights.

The sideshow was always a broad church, with the emphasis on sleaze, shock and titillation. The “Ten In One” provided asylum for the less salubrious carny acts that had long existed cheek-by-jowl with the more wholesome animal and human circus:  freak shows, magicians, fortune-tellers, museum exhibits of ‘Natural Oddities’, psychics, hootchie-kootchie dancers and geeks.  If the big top was where rubes went to gasp in awe at spectacular feats of strength and agility, punters paid the sideshow entrance fee so to gasp in revulsion, and, depending on the act and the spectator, arousal.  This symbiotic combination of the sideshow and the big top were once the ultimate in binary entertainment, an experience like no other night on earth.  Under one roof, glittering dreams – flight, strength, beauty, skill, romance.  Under the other, nightmares – deformity, trickery, insanity, squalor, Death.

It’s no surprise that the circus has provided such inspiration for writers. Although we now find eye-popping spectacle at the movies, freak galleries on reality TV, this late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century vision of the circus still has a strong hold on our imaginations.   Modern circuses rely on rock music, fancy sets and pyrotechnics, but circus fiction reaches past these brash special effects into history, pulling us into the same magical world of itinerant outsiders that so fascinated our peasant forebears.

The circus story can be approached from many angles. Some circus novels are crammed with literary delights (Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus). Others deliver a pulpy dose of dark carnival (Dean Koontz’s The Funhouse, Richard Laymon’s Funland).  Others offer behind-the-scenes romance (Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants) or elaborate allegory (Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi).  The circus presents unique opportunities to write about a larger-than-life milieu, where characters’ capacity for love, jealousy, sacrifice and wickedness is magnified accordingly, and to write in language peppered with delicious polyglot slang from aba-daba (cookhouse dessert) to zanni (clowns). A circus-set story is always a good bet for a bigger, bolder, brasher book.

The circus, especially through its shadow self, the sideshow, also offers a window on the grotesque, and appeals to writers of a lurid inclination. The gaudy tents and trailers shelter all manner of physical, mental and supernatural aberrations that can’t be found anywhere else.  An idiosyncratic character who might seem unbelievable in any other context is utterly plausible strolling (or hopping, or crawling, or riding on a tiger, or parading on a custom-made chariot) between the guy ropes, animal cages, and wet underwear flapping on clotheslines.

The granddaddy of modern circus novels is William Lindsay Gresham’s potent noir, Nightmare Alley, published in 1946.  Based on conversations between Gresham and a former carny while they were both serving as volunteers during the Spanish Civil War, Nightmare Alley charts the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, showman turned spiritualist minister, murderer and drunk.

The circus is one of the most powerful cross-cultural metaphors we can access, encapsulating blasphemy and religion, horror and make-believe, celebration and lamentation...

We first meet Stanton as a cocksure young prestidigitator, the latest addition to a Ten-In-One show, in awe of everything circus life has to offer: sex, easy money, lawlessness.  Gresham opens with a lesson, however (Nightmare Alley, like most classic noir, functions as a stern cautionary tale). Stanton observes a traditional geek, talked up to the marks as “one of the unexplained mysteries of the universe. Is he man or is he beast?”  The act (“presented solely in the interests of science and education”) consists of a man in stained underwear wearing a black wig and brown greasepaint sitting in a pen full of snakes.  Once an avid crowd has gathered, he bites the head off a chicken.  Rinse, and repeat.  Fascinated, Stan asks the Ten-In-One’s owner how anyone might devise such a performance. Hoately tells him, “You don’t find ‘em.  You make ‘em.”

Hoately’s account of the genesis of a geek will chill your spine.  It’s a story Stan never quite forgets, as he evolves from card tricks that con marks out of nickels and dimes to elaborate fraud as a spiritualist medium, targeting a wealthy industrialist for hundreds of thousands of dollars, although the final, horrifying chapter suggests he fails to learn the geek's lesson.  No matter how far Stan travels, how wildly he schemes, he can never run a big enough con to fill his grouchbag and escape the midway for good.  Once the circus has you in its clutches, it never lets you go.  Drenched in faded hopes and whisky fumes, Nightmare Alley will never quite let you go either.  It’s an elegant, clinical dissection of a book, laying bare the mutant sideshow incarnation of the American Dream.

Ray Bradbury picks up similarly nightmarish themes in Something Wicked This Way Comes (published 1962), but laces his story with fantasy and horror rather than Gresham’s acrid realism.  Inspired by a childhood encounter with a magician (Mr. Electrico) who told him to “Live forever!” Bradbury developed the novel from a movie concept he thought his friend Gene Kelly might direct. It’s a lyrical work about boyhood and growing old, the push-pull between hollow delusions and innocent daydreams, the bonds between father and son, and about being very, very careful what you wish for.

The arrival in town of “Cooger Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show — Fantoccini, Marionette Circus, and Your Plain Meadow Carnival” sends shockwaves of delight through the lives of thirteen year-old Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, best friends and next-door neighbors.  But we suspect there’s something wrong from the way this circus sneaks into town at 3 a.m. (“soul’s midnight”).

A carnival should be all growls, roars like, timberlands stacked, bundled, rolled and crashed, great explosions of lion dust, men ablaze with working anger, pop bottles jangling, horse buckles shivering, engines and elephants in full stampede through rains of sweat while zebras neighed and trembled like cage trapped in cage. But this was like old movies, the silent theatre haunted with black-and-white ghosts, silvery mouth opening to let moon-light smoke out, gestures made in silence so hushed you could hear the wind fizz the hair on your cheeks.

Jim and Will’s extended encounter with the circus fractures their innocence and leaves them forever altered.  It seduces them, and other townsfolk (including their hapless, loveless teacher, Miss Foley), by promising disruption to the natural order, the same suggestions of love, anarchy, magic, freedom whispered by the gleemen of old. Yet the fun sideshow acts are nothing but a front for that most malevolent and memorable trio, Mr. Cooger, Mr. Dark and the fearsome Dust Witch.  The centrifugal tug of the calliope was never so compelling, yet so dangerous. 

In Geek Love (1989), Katherine Dunn also picks up on some of Gresham’s themes.  She harks back to the Nightmare Alley sideshow era with her tale of circus freaks who, like Hoately’s chicken-sucking geek, weren’t found, but made.  Al Binewski and his wife "Crystal" Lil have come up with a novel way of expanding and improving their failing circus.  They positively embrace the concept of birth defects, deliberately exposing their unborn children to various vile chemicals in the hope that they will be born as freaks.  This results in some successes, and some failures, but they all have an important contribution to make to the Binewski traveling show.

The failures live in twenty-gallon glass jars, on display as part of “A Museum of Innovative Art.”  There’s Janus, a set of conjoined twins with a head at each end of a single spine,  boneless Maple (“who looked like a big rumpled sponge”), Clifford (“who looked like a lasagna pan full of exposed organs with a monkey head attached”), The Fist, Apple (“who never moved anything but her lips, her eyelids and her bowels… She was two years old when she died. A pillow fell on her face”) and Leona, the Lizard Girl.

The successes live in the family trailer; conjoined twins Elly and Iphy, albino dwarf Olympia, Arturo, born with flippers instead of human limbs, and Chick, who looks normal but can move mountains with his mind. From a safe distance, Olympia narrates the torrid tale of sibling obsession and rivalry that drives her unique childhood.  Like Stanton Carlisle before him, Arturo parlays his circus showmanship into religion, and starts a highly successful cult, Arturism.  A tent revival is a tent revival, whatever the message you’re preaching.  Arturism requires devotees, in recognition of their leader’s exalted physical state, to amputate all their limbs.  Naturally, it all ends in gloriously grotesque tears.

Other writers eschew the idea of the circus as the locus for a cautionary tale and see it as a site of redemption.  Darren Shan’s YA series Cirque Du Freak raises some interesting questions about making the right moral choices, and indulges the reader with a fantastic array of sideshow acts.  Characters include Madame Octa, a giant spider, Evra, the snake boy,  Rhamus Twobellies (the Man With Two Stomachs), Cormac Limbs (who can re-grow lopped appendages at will), The Wolf Man, Alexander Ribs, sinister Little People (who have minds but no memories), mingling with a hypnotic bunch of vampires, vampanezes and vampets.

Amanda Davis’s 2004 novel, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, also deals in the difficult moral choices adolescents face.  Sixteen year-old Faith Duckle is one of life’s great losers.  Overweight, caught in a spiral of self-harm and self-loathing after her father’s death, she thinks she’s hit rock bottom after she’s lured under the bleachers by a coterie of jocks and gang-raped.  One suicide attempt and months in residential rehab later, Faith is outwardly transformed (her rapists don’t recognize her in the school corridors) but the fat girl she used to be remains a constant presence in her life, following her home from school and spewing torrents of bad advice.  Even though she’s lost forty-eight pounds and her skin has “mostly cleared up”, Faith still feels like an unloved outsider.

She needs a more dramatic and lasting catalyst for change than therapy. When a kindly co-worker, Charlie, introduces her to his boyfriend, Marco, otherwise known as THE DIGESTIVORE, an act at the Fartlesworth Circus, Faith perks up.  She’s entranced by the big top spectacular (“All of it hollered to me, everything robbing my attention from everything else”) but she’s most dazzled by a trapeze artist, Miss Mina Ballerina, who performs high above the audience’s heads without fear for her safety (“Below her there was no net, just sawdust over hard ground”).

Merely knowing of the circus’s existence is enough for Faith, for a while, but as things get worse at home and school, her thoughts turn more and more to running away, and, naturally, in the direction of her contact among the Fartlesworth tents.  So, after a drastic act of revenge, Faith kicks over her high school traces and runs off in search of the traveling show, her only friend and confidante, the fat girl, tagging along behind.  Once she arrives, she reinvents herself as “Annabelle” and begins her career somewhat inauspiciously shoveling elephant dung.  But, over time, and with a lot of sweat and toil, the big top works its transformative magic on her – remember, circuses run on Faith.

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is by turns heartbreaking, inspiring and hilarious, and makes excellent use of the circus to expose the flaws and refinements of a troubled teenage soul. The vivid portrayal of the Fartlesworth Circus stems in part from Davis’s time on the road with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus while researching the book.  Sadly, this was Davis’s only novel – she died in a plane crash not long before publication.

And, finally, yes, there ought to be clowns.  Many horror writers have chosen to separate clowns from their natural sawdust-strewn habitat, but Will Elliott leaves his right where they do their best work, as a main attraction in The Pilo Family Circus (published 2006).  This award-winning novel follows the fortunes of hapless Jamie, kidnapped by paranormal clowns and forced to participate in their monstrous japes.  After accidentally tangling with the psychotic trio of Gonko, Droopy and Goshy, Jamie is strong-armed into joining the Pilo crew, and discovers that circus life is no laughing matter.  The tents are pitched on the very fringes of reality, so there’s no running away, no route back to normality.  To survive, Jamie has to graduate clown school.

It all becomes a tad easier when he smears on the white greasepaint (“It smelled like an unpleasant mix of greasepaint and petrol”) that transforms him into JJ the Clown.  But the changes are more than skin deep.

It began in his belly, a feeling of fingers tickling and poking him.  The muscles in his legs coiled like tight springs.  Blood rushed to his head, making his face prickle with heat, and little white spots danced behind his vision.  His mind went blank as though all thought had been paused like an audio tape… And when ‘play’ was pressed again, the thoughts were not his own.

Under the influence of the greasepaint Jamie becomes extremely violent and vicious (“Nicer the man, meaner the clown”), rampaging through the rest of the circus and terrorizing the ‘carnie rats’ he feels don’t give him enough respect.  He even picks fights with acrobats, the undisputed dominant force on the campground.  As JJ, he feels no pain, heeds no consequences.  As Jamie, he wakes up in hell.

Elliott creates a weird and wonderful alternate world to house his otherworldly circus.  The campgrounds are ruled by the decidedly demonic Pilo brothers, Kurt and George, who, like Cooger and Dark before them, have their sights set not just on marks’ disposable income, but their souls.  If this sounds too fantastical, bear in mind that Northampton, England, is currently in the grip of a ‘Spooky Clown Panic’ – it seems the Pilo Family Circus is pitched just outside town.  Lock your doors and pray for salvation.

These are just some of the circus stories lurking on bookshelves, promising a few hours of escape into a realm of lurid illusions, melodramas, and, against the odds, a moral education. The circus is one of the most powerful cross-cultural metaphors we can access, encapsulating blasphemy and religion, horror and make-believe, celebration and lamentation of what it means to be flesh and blood.  As we’ve done for centuries, we roll up roll up for the Greatest Show On Earth.  We want to believe we’re witnessing the impossible.  But the only truth out there is this: the sum total of our doomed civilization’s aspirations has remained unchanged for millennia —  panem et circenses.

What are your favourite circus fictions? Have you ever run away and joined the circus? Would you ever consider earning a living as a geek?

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

Similar Columns

Explore other columns from across the blog.

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves. This month,...

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Books That Should Be Box Office Blockbusters

It seems as if Hollywood is entirely bereft of fresh material. Next year, three different live-action Snow White films will be released in the States. Disney is still terrorizing audiences with t...

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-c...

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

Photo via Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the ...

Cliche, the Literary Default

Original Photo by Gerhard Lipold As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops in...

A Recap Of... The Wicked Universe

Out of Oz marks Gregory Maguire’s fourth and final book in the series beginning with his brilliant, beloved Wicked. Maguire’s Wicked universe is richly complex, politically contentious, and fille...

Reedsy | Editors with Marker (Marketplace Editors)| 2024-05

Submitting your manuscript?

Professional editors help your manuscript stand out for the right reasons.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: