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The Circus as a Fantastic Device

I grew up devouring the works of Ray Bradbury, and I have no doubt that Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man all had an enormous influence on my love of fantasy. Add to that the fact that I grew up in New Jersey, where the dilapidated boardwalks of the Jersey Shore eerily embody the same carnival creepiness, and I suppose it is no wonder that I love stories that feature circuses, carnivals, freak shows or anything at all related to them. And now that I am a little older (and can look two out of three circus clowns in the eye without crying), and having just finished Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe, I find myself considering what makes the device so compelling.

The Many Faces of the Circus

I group a pretty broad assortment of devices into my “circus” or “carnival” category: on one end of the spectrum, we have the traditional traveling circus as brilliantly depicted in Genevieve Valentine’s recent Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti or Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao. The focus in these stories is performative: the players in the circus play certain roles which stand either in contrast to or in embodiment of their true natures. Where play ends and player begins is purposefully blurred, and the stories often explore this fuzzy gray area explicitly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the traveling carnival, such as those that Bradbury so adores or the one used in Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. In these stories, the roles that the performers play do matter but they are counter-balanced and contrasted against their lives outside of their performances, and further balanced by the devices employed in their show. The performances matter, but these stories feature an assumption that there is more to the players than their performances. Between these two extremes, lies the Vaudeville circuit that Robert Jackson Bennett explores in The Troupe.

The borders between these variants are fluid, and it is entirely possible that The Encyclopedia of Fantasy is right to call them interchangeable: they share many of the same structural and aesthetic features. What such enterprises represent for the reader is a portal into the world of fantasy. When we read a story that features this device, the circus marks the jumping off point between a representation of reality and the wild adventure of fiction.

As a device, the circus taps into a primal cultural touchstone (you can find my earlier thoughts on such touchstones and their relationship to reader trust here). By the time we are ten, most of us will have had the disorienting experience of going to an amusement park, visiting a fair, or seeing a circus. As a result, we will have already internalized the mental shift that the circus’ superficial fantasy demands of us. The process by which we accept the (clearly fictional) conceit of the real-life circus is close cousin to Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief when reading fiction. By tapping into this physiological and emotional memory, writers who employ the circus as a narrative device boost the signal of their fiction, and significantly accelerate the reader’s acceptance of the story. Everyone, after all, loves the circus.

The Real-world Circus as an Imperfect Portal

Despite its power as a cultural touchstone, the circus is not a perfect portal from reality to fantasy. And part of its strength as a narrative device stems from its very imperfection. When we go to the movies, we experience a complete immersion into the film’s fantasy. If we see the wires, if we see the camera, we scoff and complain about the film’s poor production quality. But at a real-life circus or carnival it is impossible to make such a complete break from reality. Even children will see the carnival worker smoking behind the tent, will catch the cracks in the face paint, or spot the smudges in the hall of mirrors.

This creates a certain level of cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, we want to immerse ourselves in the fiction of the circus, but on the other hand we are unable to divorce ourselves from its seedy reality. As a portal, the real-life circus is flawed. And the fictional portrayals of such circuses rely on that flawed nature by asking us to hold two conflicting thoughts in our head at the same time: that the circus is fake, a glamour, a sham. And that it is real, that the fantasy it asks us to concede is true. If that is not a perfect description of how fantasy – or fiction itself – works, I don’t know what is.

The Circus as a Means of Transition

Many stories that involve the circus device feature young characters signing onto the troupe or at least peaking behind its curtain. Whether it is Bradbury’s Will Halloway, Jim Nightshade, or Douglas Spaulding, Valentine’s Little George, or Bennett’s George Carole, it is children who are the natural window through which we can experience the circus. This extends the portal concept: we run away to join the circus, we transition from a “normal” existence into a fantastical one, and in many ways we grow from the innocence of childhood where we hew closely to the fantasy into the more cynical reality of adulthood where we sneer at the greasepaint.

Circus stories often use a child’s innocent perspective to deepen their basic cognitive dissonance. They use the circus, and their young protagonist’s gradual understanding of its nature as a concrete expression of the dissonance of adolescence. Whether it is Douglas Spaulding, Holden Caulfield, or Katniss Everdeen, every young adult must wrestle with the transition from childhood to adulthood: it is the literal foundation of every bildungsroman ever written.

The Circus as the Anti-Quest

There is an (over-simplistic) interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero that has given us the “hero’s journey” as an almost write-by-the-numbers recipe for fantasy. With its nature as a portal device, its coterie of unusual characters, and its predilection for young protagonists, one might think that circus stories naturally lend themselves to the heroic quest model. It is a tempting theory, but from a thematic perspective, I find that circus stories are almost the anti-thesis of the traditional quest narrative.

Consider the object of the quest: it is an object, an achievement, a moment that is distinct in both time and space. The destruction of the ring in Mount Doom. The recovery of Henwen the Oracular Pig. Such specificity is anathema to the circus: they are traveling shows, by their very nature transient. From the perspective of the performers, there is no quest: there is simply a never-ending progression of indistinct towns. From the perspective of the towns they visit: there is merely a brief sojourn in a fantastical realm. When the circus itself is given a specific goal, as it is in Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, its thematic efficacy is sorely weakened. And when, as in most narrative fiction, our characters create for themselves a tangible goal – as in Valentine’s Mechanique, Bennett’s The Troupe, Howard’s Johannes Cabal, Philip Reeve’s A Web of Air, or Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn – they will leave the confines of the circus to ultimately achieve it. To do otherwise would elide the cognitive dissonance the device relies on.

The Troupe as the Anti-Band of Heroes

The attractions of the circus – in real life as in fiction – are invariably the characters that it invites us to meet. They are always distinct, extremely varied, and most importantly led by a charismatic, engaging, and mysterious leader. In much heroic fantasy, especially in the hero’s journey school of quest fantasies, one might think that a circus offers the perfect source for our hero’s plucky band of entertaining companions. But just as the hero’s quest structure eviscerates the circus’ effectiveness as a narrative device, its performers are the antithesis to the stereotypical band of companions.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy talks about how companions in heroic fantasy tend to either appear in “dirty dozen” configurations (where external circumstances force them together) or as “seven samurai” (where their association to achieve a shared goal is voluntary). Despite their superficial resemblance to a pariah elite, the circus performers by definition do not conform to either configuration. The defining characteristic of circus performers is their independence: both from each other, and from the broader society. This independence further heightens their fantastical disassociation from reality, and gives greater scope for the exploration of character themes. They are not brought together by some external circumstance, even if it might seem that way. Even if – as in Something Wicked This Way Comes – they serve the circus under duress, it is almost always their choices that put them there. Yet despite this, their association is rarely voluntary: they do not share goals with their fellow travelers, and their friendships are tenuous at best. Three threads bind them: the circus master, the circus itself, and the fact that they are all – in some way – broken.

And this represents the greatest departure from either the Dirty Dozen or Seven Samurai trope: in most heroic fantasy, and especially in the bildungsroman, the youthful hero’s companions represent facets of the fully mature ur-hero. From the disreputable thief companion our hero might learn tactical flexibility and cunning wit, the noble knight companion might teach honor in the face of certain death, the magus might teach wisdom, etc. Each companion plays a certain role and embodies a certain facet of the mature hero’s ultimate personality. Not so in a circus story. If anything, the youthful protagonist must build their mature self in opposition to their companions.

And this is something which Bennett nails perfectly in The Troupe. Each of the members of Silenus’ vaudeville troupe is, as all fictional circus performers are, broken. Their fracture lines are intensely private, and tie directly into the themes of the book. The unity with which Bennett structures his story is very impressive, and a significant improvement over his debut Mr. Shivers. But his young hero, George Carole, must navigate the minefields of his companion’s tragic histories. In some cases, he pours salt on their wounds. In others, he is oblivious until almost too late. But he grows to define himself not as an amalgamation of his companion’s value systems, but with a worldview distinctly his own.

And it is this, the defining of oneself, and negotiating the border between fantasy and reality, that lies at the heart of every circus story. It is the primary theme of Valentine’s Mechanique, of Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, and of just about every circus story I have ever read. And I suspect that is a greater truth that lies at the heart of every fantasy. And, for that matter, at the heart of every work of fiction.

The Uses of Food in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

Thanksgiving’s secular ethos built around food, family, and friends (three things I love) make this my favorite holiday of the year. Superficially, it’s all about the great feast centered around the Thanksgiving turkey, and so I thought why not post about how food is used in science fiction, fantasy, and horror?

The Difficulties with Food

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we are evolutionarily wired to pay attention to food. That makes it very difficult for food to appear in a story or scene without becoming a major facet. Genre films use the visual of food to great effect: who can forget the scene in The Return of the King when Denethor is feasting during the charge for Osgiliath? Or the dinner scene in Beetlejuice? And let’s not forget those movies that are all about the dangers of late night snacking: Gremlins and Gremlins 2?

The filmmakers all knew that the instant food appears on screen, at least for a moment, our eyes are naturally drawn to it, our focus shifts and – depending on how it’s depicted – our mouths start watering. It’s a Pavlovian response, and the best film-makers make use of it in their movie making. The same thing happens when we read. The feast-time strategy session is a trope of epic fantasy, and much horror (including the recent zombie resurgence) is centered around food (of one sort or another). Avoiding the cliche and making food a seamless, important part of the story is much more difficult. Too little focus, and the food becomes incidental, a cliche distraction. Too much focus, and the food becomes the point of the scene (which sometimes is what you want).

So how does genre fiction actually make use of food? Well, from a brief persual of my bookshelves, it seems that I can see four different uses:

  1. As a metaphor.
  2. As a characterization device.
  3. As a distancing device.
  4. As imagery of the sublime.

Food as a Metaphor

This is one of the more obvious uses, but can be quite difficult to do tastefully. Consider two different works and their metaphoric use of food:

A Christmas Carol
, by Charles Dickens

Dandelion Wine
, by Ray Bradbury

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens uses dinner as symbols of class division. The Spirit of Christmas Present shows us many people eating on Christmas Eve, the most memorable of which is surely the Cratchit’s feast. Poor, down-trodden Bob Cratchit and his family put together a lovely spread. Dickens knows that food is not just about the meal itself, but about the way it is presented, the way it is served, the company in which it is enjoyed. He puts all of this to mouth-watering use as he describes their (meager) fare of Christmas goose and pudding:

Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds, a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course – and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot, Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigor, Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple sauce, Martha dusted the hot plates, Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table, the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and, mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped.

Setting up the table, laying out the plates, anticipating the taste, these are the rituals of most any family. The “pre-game” sets the mood, establishes the characters, the joy of a holiday meal. Note how Dickens points out that geese are not that rare, that they are easy to be had…but that the Cratchits still rarely enjoy them: “you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds…and in truth it was something very like it in that house“. Or consider how the Cratchits react to the pudding:

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly, too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that, now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.

The metaphor works here because Dickens does not beat us over the head with it. Granted, he beats us over the head with Scrooge’s mistreatment of Cratchit. But when describing the scene with the food, he implies its meaning quite rightly. The fact that the Cratchits eat a poor man’s meal are subtly implied, not stated. The focus is not on the meagerness of their meal: the text instead focuses on their dignity under duress, and that is what makes the metaphor effective. When, after his ordeal, Scrooge sends them the giant Christmas turkey (“It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim.“) the contrast with the goose and the small pudding resonates that much more strongly because it is not pointed out to the reader.

Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine uses a very different tact. Unlike Dickens, Bradbury hands us the key to his metaphor directly:

Danelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered.

The entire third chapter of Dandelion Wine describes how the wine represents the joys of summer, bottled to bring a taste of summer into the cold winter months. With a book so nostalgic, the book itself represents an analogous metaphor. Just as the bottles of dandelion wine bring summer into winter, so too does the book itself bring magical childhood into adult life. Both Dickens and Bradbury use metaphor: one by implication and understatement, the other explicitly and structurally. Other authors in genre use food metaphors more obliquely (Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Christina Rosetti) but I find Dickens’ and Bradbury’s methods the most memorable.

Food as Characterization

One of my favorite scenes involving food takes place in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan (first of his Gormenghast novels). The scene is a conversation between the ruthlessly ambitious social-climber Steerpike, the somewhat embittered Dr. Prunesquallor, the flighty but loving Fuchsia, and her shattered Nannie Slagg. In this scene, Steerpike endeavors to secure employment with Doctor Prunesquallor, and has coerced Fuchsia and Nannie Slagg into bringing him to the good doctor.

They do not eat at this meeting, but they do drink. And Peake uses the act of drinking to further establish his characters. Western culture associates certain traits with certain alcohols. Advertisers rely on this when crafting their brand messages: think of the archetypal images you see in the typical whiskey ad. Peake was a master of characterization (arguably, his trilogy is one long study in characterization), and he knew that he could use his characters’ chosen libations as a window into their souls:

‘Drink, my Fuchsia dear,’ [Prunesquallor] said. ‘Drink to all those things that you love best. I know. I know,’ he added with his hands folded at his chin again. ‘Drink to everything that’s bright and glossy. Drink to the Coloured Things.’

Fuchsia nodded her head unsmilingly at the toast and took a gulp. She looked up at the Doctor very seriously. ‘It’s nice,’ she said. ‘I like elderberry wine. Do you like your drink, Nannie?’

Mrs. Slagg very nearly spilt her port over the arm of the chair when she heard herself addressed. She nodded her head violently.

‘And now for the brandy,’ said the Doctor. ‘The brandy for Master…Master…’

‘Steerpike,’ said the youth. ‘My name is Steerpike, sir.’

The whole scene goes on for some paragraphs more. Fuchsia is confused, and easily distracted, and whether this is a result of the wine or her own nature is a matter of conjecture. Slagg falls asleep. Prunesquallor does not even so much as taste his cognac. And Steerpike? Steerpike keeps his distance. Verbally, he remains aloof and speaks and sips only to underline the specific points of his dialog and as a tool to help him achieve his goals. The differences in what they drink, and the differences in how they drink it, create a perfect alignment between character and action. If the characters all drank the same way (sipped, gulped, or ignored their glasses), we would finish the passage with a weaker understanding. If they were all drinking sherry, or wine, or beer, so too we would have a less strongly-formed sense of the characters. Using such half-measures would have weakened the unity between their words and deeds. But Peake draws characters too well for that.

Food as a Distancing Device

Food is often used for comedic/tragic effect in science fiction (“It’s a cookbook! It’s a cookbook!”). But perhaps one of the best ways that it is used is as a distancing device. The most memorable (for me) scene in Julie E. Czerneda’s Survival is when the heroine Mac finds herself aboard a Dhryn (alien) spaceship. In order for the rest of the book (and the rest of the series) to work, Czerneda needs to ensure that we view the Dhryn as aliens. They need to have alien value systems, alien biologies, alien everything, to establish that sense of Other.

When Mac first comes aboard the ship, there are no Dhryn to be seen. Instead, she is alone in her quarters, and must figure out how she is to eat and drink. She is offered what is – ostensibly – food, but it is so unlike any food she has ever seen that she has no way of knowing if it is even edible (for humans). With no food, and no water, and no ability to communicate with her hosts she finds herself in dire straits, until she attempts the following experiment:

Step one. After her experiment with the Dhryn shower, Mac wasn’t going to risk herself without due care. She chose the outside of her left arm as most expendable and pressed it against one of the cylinders.

It felt cold, which didn’t mean it was chilled. Room temperature, Mac concluded. She examined the skin that had touched the food. No reddening or swelling. She brought her forearm close to her nostrils and sniffed.

Blah! Mac wrinkled her nose. She wasn’t sure if it smelled more like hot tar or sulfur. It certainly didn’t smell edible.

Step two. She picked up one of the cylinders, doing her best not to react to its slimy feel or rubbery consistency, and brought it to her mouth. Slowly, fighting the urge to vomit – a potentially disastrous loss of fluid – she stuck out her tongue and touched it to the side of the cylinder.


Her tongue might be too dry. Mac brought her tongue back inside her mouth, letting its tip contact what saliva she had left, then, cautiously, she moved that saliva around so it contacted all the taste buds on her tongue.

BLAH! Mac barely succeeded in keeping her gorge in her throat. God, it was bitter. Putting down the cylinder, she crushed a bit of nutrient bar in her hand and licked up the crumbs. The sweetness helped, barely. She resisted the urge to take another sip. Thirty minutes until her next.

Step three. Mac breathed in through her nose, out through her mouth, centering herself, slowing her heart rate from frantic to tolerably terrified. Then she picked up a cylinder and took a bite.

BITTER! Before she could spit it out, moist sweetness flooded her senses as her teeth fully closed. Startled, she poked the jellylike msas around in her mouth. A tang of bitterness remained, but the overall impression was of having bitten off a piece of…

…overripe banana. Not that flavor, but the same consistency and texture. This taste was complex, more spicy than bland, and seemed to change as the material sat in her mouth. A good sign, Mac thought, chewing cautiously. The enzyme in her saliva was acting on what had to be carbohydrate. The moisture in the mouthful was more than welcome.

She swallowed. When nothing worse happened than the impact of a mouthful thudding into her empty stomach, Mac examined the cylinder. Where she’d bitten it, glistening material was slowly oozing onto her hand, as if through a hole.

Mac laughed. If the sound had a tinge of hysteria to it, she felt entitled. “I ate the damn wrapper,” she said, wiping her eyes.

The use of humor is an effective tool, a way of releasing the tension built up in the preceding pages. The systematic, experimental nature of the meal is in keeping with the character’s profession (scientist). And the description of the food itself is sufficiently alien that up until that last sentence, we can believe that this is whatever food the Dhryn normally eat. An effective way of establishing Mac as the only human aboard this very alien starship headed for alien lands.

Food as the Sublime

The final way for food to be used is as sublime imagery. There are many ways to do that, whether in genre or out of genre. But in genre, horror stories probably do this most frequently. A disturbingly fun example that makes me squirm whenever I read it is Micaela Morrissette’s Wendigo, published in Weird Tales. The whole story is one long description of banquets, and cooking, and feasting. But Morrissette’s language artfully sets up images that are unsettling, disturbing, but still clearly food that her character finds sumptuous:

She swallowed the wine that paused in her mouth, clung there, spreading itself. She swallowed the black soup: thin, sour broth swimming with clots that trailed delicate filaments. She swallowed the tempura of cobra lily, and, inside its cup, the pale, limp moth that seemed to sigh and dissolve on her tongue. When the songbirds were served, her gracious companion, sensing her confusion, placed a steadying hand on the back of her neck and guided her head under the starched napkin. She ate the scorching meat, needled with tiny bones her teeth had splintered. She felt little ruptures where they scratched her throat. Her companion was missing the fifth and second fingertips of his right hand, the entire middle finger of his left. Bluntly, blindly, fondly, the stubs knocked against her skin. The manservant brought the baby octopi in shallow bowls filled with, her host informed the company, vibrio fischeri, which sent a faint gold-green luminescence throughout the water. She dipped an octopus in the spicy sauce and trapped it lightly between her teeth. Its small heavings and sucks brushed against the pads of her cheeks like tiny kisses. She kissed back.

The imagery is sublime, and we’re drawn along with its magic. But what gradually becomes clear is that the sublime in this case is horrific, as the story descends into a rivetingly unsettling tale of cannibalism. This is horror at its finest, using sublime imagery to simultaneously repulse the reader and keep them rapt.

Fun Food Links in Conclusion

So now that we’ve talked about how science fiction, fantasy and horror often use food, maybe as you’re enjoying Thanksgiving this week you can benefit from some fun science fictional recipes and other fun resources:

I hope you’ll be having some fantastic food this week, and above all else sharing it with your family and friends!


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