John C Adams Reviews 'The Circus of Dr Lao' by Charles G Finney

Updated: Aug 12

The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G Finney (1935)

(Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks Library)

Some books are so immensely thought provoking that it is hard to know where to begin in analysing them.

Charles G Finney spent five years out in the army with the 15th Infantry in China, returning to his native America in 1934 and settling down in Tucson, Arizona, where he worked on staff at the Tuscon Star. 'The Circus of Dr Lao' was his debut novel, and it remains Finney's best-known work. It was filmed as '7 Faces of Dr Lao' in 1964.

Dr Lao owns a flea-bitten, rundown circus that quite unexpectedly rumbles into the small town of Abalone, Arizona. Such is the mystery that surrounds it that the residents aren't even sure how it arrived. Railroad staff know that it didn't come into town by train, and two state inspectors agree that it didn't enter by road either. So how on earth did it get to Main Street? And that's just the beginning of the unsolved mysteries that surround the collection of odd exhibits that arrive in the town and set up their tents. Their customers are shown a real life chimera, sphinx, medusa, unicorn and a werewolf, plus a host of other strange exhibits.

The arrival in town of the circus and the fleeting glimpse of some of its stars during the short parade sparks heated debate between residents about exactly what they've seen. Was it a bear or a man? Is that really a satyr? Surely unicorns don't actually exist? Later that day, the town's folk head over to the circus to see more, encountering oddly convincing yet simultaneously quite incredible spectacles in the sideshow tents. As they get sucked into the experience, the people of Abalone become convinced of the veracity of what they've seen. It is part of this book's charm that the reader also yearns to believe. Somewhere along the line, exposure to these odd little foreign experiences brings joy to the humdrum lives of Abalone's residents.

'The Circus of Dr Lao' is probably best described as dark fantasy, yet it is also a fable and at the same time it's a very thoughtful portrait of the human condition. It's also playfully postmodern, with a metafiction note section at the back that concludes the rather abruptly ending of the main text. It is here that, subtly and subject to many sly hints, the true outcome of the story is presented, and we learn what happened to the main characters among the townsfolk after the show ends. The circus's departure is as mysterious as its entrance. Perhaps rather sadly, we never find out whether the destinies for the mermaid, sea snake and even Dr Lao himself sketched in the main story ever come to pass. Just like their acts, they disappear forever, leaving the reader and townsfolk alike to wonder what exactly it is they have just seen.

One of Finney's themes I appreciated most was the consideration of what normality is anyway, with questions raised about whether the people of Abalone are fit to stand in judgment of the exhibits they pay a nickel or a half dollar to gawp at for entertainment and titillation. One woman is vividly described as being so unhappy with her appearance that she is constantly preening, primping, dressing herself in order to be different, and her husband has to raise her spirits with jewellery whenever her self-esteem falters. A man's weak physicality and need for surgery after surgery to correct it is graphically presented symptom after symptom. Can these human specimens really be seen as stronger, and more desirable, than the sphinx, unicorn or satyr? All of this is presented in a lighthearted and openminded tone with a considerable helping of humour, that makes this short novel both a joy to read and a prompt to reflection upon our lives, our values and our treatment of others.

Thank you so much for reading my review of 'The Circus of Dr Lao'. Please share your thoughts on this book or any fantasy book you've enjoyed in the comments section below.

My next post will be 'Fantasy Friday' in a couple of days.

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