Circus Love

E. Catherine Tobler has never run away to join the circus — but she thinks about doing so every day. Among others, her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award ballot. Her first novel, Rings of Anubis, launched the Folley & Mallory Adventures. Senior editor of Shimmer Magazine, you can find her online at www.ecatherine.com and @ecthetwit.

E. Catherine Tobler looks at the camera as if she has a secret; her purple hair matches her purple shirt.

I wasn’t going to make a list of circus books, because it seemed too easy–here’s my circus book, The Kraken Sea, and so here are others you might also dig …

But then, Katherine Dunn died.

Dunn wrote one of two circus novels that have really stuck with me, for better and worse both, so I thought okay, maybe I do talk about those two circus books–even if there’s no way to entirely convey what they mean to me.

I didn’t read Geek Love until 2014, twenty-five years after it had come out. I’d heard about it from friends, of course, but my to-be-read stacks were filled with books that seemed more pressing. Geek Love would find me in its own time, as books tend to.

When it did find me, we didn’t quite let each other go; I read the book slowly because while the circus sucked me in, I was reluctant to let myself get completely lost in its tents. They were terrifying. I spent a month within its pages, simultaneously inhaling it and pushing it away. This isn’t an easy book to read, but then circuses generally aren’t easy, when you peek under the edge of the tent flap, when you see the horror behind the magic.

Geek Love tells the story of the Binewski family, a family that is breeding its own freakshow attractions. A boy with flippers, the Siamese twin girls, an albino hunchback, and dear Chick who seems so normal–until you peel back the layers and really look. It’s a book that will break your heart and make you question what is normal and beautiful and ugly and strange. I think all circuses should do such.

We were all nervy with an unspoken anticipation. We were accelerating toward something and we didn’t know what.

The other circus book that sticks with me is the one I read when I was still in grade school. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (who died in 2012) introduced me to Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show and was unlike anything I had read up to that point. The cover alone was terrifying–I’m still surprised I was allowed to read it at all, but Bradbury was labeled classic and charming and harmless–had these people ever read him? Bradbury will knife you in the gut!

While Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of two young boys, this young girl also got lost in their adventure, captivated by the lightning rods, the illustrated man, and of course the carousel. I ran alongside Will and Jim and oh, the witch gave me such nightmares. She was supposed to stay frozen, but never ever did–she, like all good ladies, did her own thing.

What would it be like to ride that carousel, to turn back time until you possibly vanished? To turn time forward until all you knew was turned to dust, and you old and gray? What does that do to a body? To a heart?

And in the window, like a great coffin board of star-colored glass, beached on two sawhorses lay a chunk of Alaska Snow Company Ice chopped to a great size enough to flash in a giant’s ring. And sealed in this ice was the most beautiful woman in the world.

The Kraken Sea is a child of both Geek Love and Something Wicked This Way Comes. It is a child of those October nights, when the wind and trees are never still, when the darkness holds things you never dreamed but still come to you. The Kraken Sea was born in the gears of a rusting carousel, the eyes of the animals still somehow glossy and knowing; within old, creased skin where the tattoos still manage to writhe. It is a thing of beauty, though at first glance it is ugly and horrifying.

I hope The Kraken Sea does its parent books proud; every time I write my circus, Dunn and Bradbury are always close to hand.

The top of a person's head is covered by clouds and lightning

The Kraken Sea

Fifteen year old Jackson is different from the other children at the foundling hospital. Scales sometimes cover his arms. Tentacles coil just below his skin. Despite this Jackson tries to fit in with the other children. He tries to be normal for Sister Jerome Grace and the priests. But when a woman asks for a boy like him, all that changes. His name is pinned to his jacket and an orphan train whisks him across the country to Macquarie’s.

At Macquarie’s, Jackson finds a home unlike any he could have imagined. The bronze lions outside the doors eat whomever they deem unfit to enter, the hallways and rooms shift and change at will, and Cressida – the woman who adopted him – assures him he no longer has to hide what he is. But new freedoms hide dark secrets. There are territories, allegiances, and a kraken in the basement that eats shadows.

As Jackson learns more about the new world he’s living in and about who he is, he has to decide who he will stand with: Cressida, the woman who gave him a home and a purpose, or Mae, the black-eyed lion tamer with a past as enigmatic as his own. The Kraken Sea is a fast paced adventure full of mystery, Fates, and writhing tentacles just below the surface, and in the middle of it all is a boy searching for himself.

Readers, what circus or carnival books have stuck with you? One lucky commenter will receive one copy of The Kraken Sea (print if within US, e-book if international).


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KATE LECHLER, with us since May 2014, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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10 comments

  1. Circus narratives have never really appealed to me (nor have real-life circuses), but I’m a sucker for essays exploring the parentage of a story. Thanks for stopping by, Ms. Tobler!

  2. I’m a big fan of Night Circus by Erin Morganstern–really fun! Actually, a lot of good carnival/circus-themed novels have come out in the past few years: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler; and Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. I didn’t realize how many there were until I started looking on my shelves … apparently this is something I’m into! (should come as no surprise …)

    And of course, Tobler’s book which is great and which I’ll be reviewing asap!

  3. Traveling Showmen by Stuart Thayer is nonfiction about the very early American circus, and absolutely riveting. http://amzn.to/1TO2if3 It might be tough to find, but it’s a gem.

  4. RedEyedGhost /

    I really enjoy circus books, but I’m pretty meh about actual circuses. I try to fit one in during October reading during each of the past 4-5 years (along with a haunted house tale, a monster story, and a ghost story). I read The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett – it was great, but more circus adjacent (vaudeville) than actual circus. The Night Circus was lovely, and I’m not quite sure Something Wicked This Way Comes will ever be topped though.

    I’ll add this (why is it not on amazon though?) and Geek Love to my extremely short list. Off the top of my head the only circus book I can think of on the list is Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti.

  5. Trey /

    The City of Baraboo by Barry B. Longyear. It stuck with me as a space opera circus story and for novelty.

  6. “Bradbury will knife you in the gut!” So true. His stories freaked me out as a child (my dad was and is a fan) but they’ve also stuck with me through the years. Will have to check out Geek Love: it sounds dark and fascinating.

  7. What a beautiful essay! I’d have to include Tobler’s two books and THE TROUPE. I loved the language and the imagery in Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS, but that story didn’t stay with me quite the way I imagined it would. THE TROUPE, while actually vaudeville as REG noted, is a favorite, and for sheer weirdness, there’s always QUINN’S SHANGHAI CIRCUS by Edward Whittemore.

  8. Trey, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of THE KRAKEN SEA!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!If you are not in the US, you are eligible for an e-book version.

  9. Trey /

    Thanks Marion! I just reached using the contact page. I suspect I’ll have to fight my daughter for it once she reads the back matter.

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