Monday, January 16, 2012

The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G. Finney

The Circus of Dr Lao is the 3rd of the F's and 32nd overall in the challenge.

The author Charles G. Finney was a newspaperman who had also been in the army and spent time stationed in Asia. The Circus of Dr Lao was published in 1935, and is the best known of Finney's few books, it was conceived while he was in the army in Tientsin. It was made into a film; 7 Faces of Dr Lao, in 1964. Despite this it's a little known classic of fantasy, although it has influenced a number of writers, especially Ray Bradbury.

The circus run by the mysterious and mischievious Dr Lao comes to the small midwestern US town of Abalone, Arizona. It isn't quite what the townspeople expect. Dr Lao's circus has no actual animals or clowns or highwire acts. It does however have creatures of myth and legend: a unicorn, a Medusa and a sphinx amongst it's roster.The fortune teller tells genuine fortunes and can see the future, he also doubles as the show's magician, he is the legendary Apollonius of Tyana. There are some devastatingly accurate portraits of the small town population and their reactions to the unusualness amongst them. The philosophical conversation between the meticulous and pedantic proofreader Mr Etaoin and Dr Lao's sea serpent is a highlight and a delight. It's quite a short volume, but has true wonder in it's few pages and there's a fun catalogue at the back where the newspaperman in the author comes to the fore as he explains what happened to the characters as he invents backgrounds and futures for his creations.

The book although slim, does offer plenty of food for thought and is written in an easy to understand and read manner. As I was reading it and covering the various mythological creatures that comprised Dr Lao's circus I thought how much like a contemporary or urban fantasy it was, and it may have even been the forerunner of some of the titles that comprise the hot new subgenre.

Ray Bradbury admired The Circus of Dr Lao, and it may have provided some of the inspiration for his classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, another entertaining story of a circus or fair that is not what it initially appears to be is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard. This is one I can see myself reading again.

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