The Land of Laughs: An entertaining and thought-provoking tale

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The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll speculative fiction book reviewsThe Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll

The Land of Laughs was written back in 1980 and I wonder how many readers know about it now. It’s written by Jonathan Carroll, who has written a number of offbeat modern fantasies, and I only know about it because it was selected by David Pringle for his Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels. Even that is probably not enough to put it on most radars, but Neil Gaiman also chose it for his “Neil Gaiman Presents” series of audiobooks, so I listened to it during a series of long walks along Tokyo Bay in Rinkai Park. It’s narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, who does a nice job of capturing the strange events of the story.

The Land of Laughs is the story of Thomas Abbey, son of famous film actor Stephen Abbey. He teaches English at a small Connecticut prep school for rich kids, and tries to avoid the huge shadow that his famous father casts over him. Dissatisfied with teaching The Scarlet Letter to bored teens, he decides to take a sabbatical to pursue his greatest passion — writing a biography of his all-time favorite writer, Marshall France, a renowned creator of quirky children’s fantasies in the mold of Lewis Carroll. France was a secretive man who lived much of his life in the small town of Galen, Missouri, and when Thomas runs into another obsessed female fan of Marshall France named Saxony Gardner, they strike up a relationship and decide to take an extended road-trip to Galen to research a biography of their beloved author.

When they arrive in small-town Galen, they are unsure how the townspeople will react, and even less so the famous author’s daughter Anna, a mysterious woman who they have been warned will be hostile but turns out to be extremely welcoming and offers to help with their research. They meet many of the townspeople, attempting to gather as much material as possible about the life and influences of Marshall France. But the longer they stay, the more they notice a number of strange and disturbing incidents in the supposedly idyllic small town, which seems to have an overabundance of bull terriers…

The Land of Laughs may sound like a familiar set-up, with dark undercurrents lurking beneath the surface of a quiet Midwestern town, but this is as much about the obsessions of Thomas and Saxony and the intensity with which they idolize their favorite childhood author. As we learn about their pasts, we come to understand why they have been so strongly drawn to the quirky fantasy worlds of Marshall France. All lovers of fantasy worlds are likely to recognize that sentiment, even if not to this degree. And as the emotional lives of Thomas, Saxony, and Anna get tangled with the life of Marshall France, things get deliciously twisted.

The revelations of the power of Marshall France’s imaginary worlds and how they have influenced the town of Galen are eye-opening. And though there are moments of discomfort, this story is far more humorous than horrifying, at least until the final chapters (which felt a bit rushed, and less than fully satisfying). The Land of Laughs could have been played as an Amityville-style horror story, but really it’s more about obsessions and how they shape our lives, as well as the overwhelming influence that parents can have on their children. It also is a tribute to the godlike powers of the author to create and shape worlds to his/her liking, but a warning of the responsibilities that come with that. It is a very entertaining and thought-provoking tale, and not like anything else I’ve read before.

Published in 1980. Have you ever loved a magical book above all others? Have you ever wished the magic were real? Welcome to The Land of Laughs. A novel about how terrifying that would be. Schoolteacher Thomas Abbey, unsure son of a film star, doesn’t know who he is or what he wants–in life, in love, or in his relationship with the strange and intense Saxony Gardner. What he knows is that in his whole life nothing has touched him so deeply as the novels of Marshall France, a reclusive author of fabulous children’s tales who died at forty-four. Now Thomas and Saxony have come to France’s hometown, the dreamy Midwestern town of Galen, Missouri, to write France’s biography. Warned in advance that France’s family may oppose them, they’re surprised to find France’s daughter warmly welcoming instead. But slowly they begin to see that something fantastic and horrible is happening. The magic of Marshall France has extended far beyond the printed page…leaving them with a terrifying task to undertake.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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7 comments

  1. sandy ferber /

    This novel has turned into something of a cult item over the years. I loved it when I first read it many years ago. Thanks, Stuart, for reminding me why….

  2. I have the audiobook but haven’t read it yet. Sounds good!

    • Jonathan Carroll is one of those writers, like Jeffrey Ford, Elizabeth Hand, or James Morrow, who enjoy a specific but strong following. A breakout onto the ‘big scene’ unlikely given he (and they) will never cater to mainstream interests by writing overly familiar material, I’m glad you recognized him for the unique talent he is. The Land of Laughs is his most famous work, but I feel only because of Pringle’s list as well as being included in the Fantasy Masterworks series. In fact, you could choose any one of Carroll’s novels and find the same intelligence, technique, and storytelling.

      I see you mentioning Pringle’s list every now and then. How many have you read, and, any favorites so far?

      • Hi Jesse,
        Indeed, Jonathan Carroll is one of those niche writers like Blaylock, Powers, Morrow, etc who have their own loyal followings but aren’t likely to reach a huge audience. I’d like to try his Outside the Dog Museum someday.
        As for David Pringle, his two Best of books have been my guiding compass for three decades, and I’ve reviewed them at FanLit along with the follow-up by Damien Broderick & Paul de Filippo covering books from 1985-2010. My lifetime goals is to real all the books listed that sound promising, and I still have a long way to go. Here’s my progress to date:

        1) Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, 1949-1984: An amazing guide to lesser-known SF gems (49)
        2) Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, 1946-1987: Introduces many lesser-known fantasy works (26)
        3) Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010: Interesting choices (18)

  3. sandy ferber /

    “Need more reading time”! Don’t we all!

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