“Nothing is what one thinks it is. Cloth is stone and circus is an art. There are no certainties.”
With these words of Walter Moer you have encapsulated the essence of life under the big top. There is a wonder about those who perform in and travel with the carnival, but there is a recognized darkness, too. Nothing is ever as it seems; be not drawn in by the illusions. Your own perceptions cannot even be trusted.
And yet, that undertone of wariness, of an instinctive fear of the shadows just behind the lighted spectacle, draws us in. We reach forward with eager minds to learn more, as if our hands are stretching to take hold of the performers and run away with them. But do we really want to join the circuses below?
1. Joyland by Stephen King
Set in a small-town amusement park in North Carolina in 1973, Joyland combines crime, mystery, and ghost-story genres for the brilliant tale of Devin Jones’ summer as a carny. There’s a broken heart, a murder, and a dying child to keep you reading if the fact that this is a Stephen King novel isn’t enough in itself.
2. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Set during the Great Depression of 1929, Water for Elephants is probably known more widely for its movie adaptation with Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, but – as ever – the book is different. The Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth is a second-rate travelling circus full of freaks, grafters, and misfits. Emotions run high and danger lurks just beneath the surface. Jacob Jankowski finds this out when he hops aboard their passing train.
3. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Not so much about a circus, but rather a struggling gator park in the Florida Everglades, Swamplandia! follows 13 year old Ava as she struggles to keep the family business afloat. Her beautiful alligator wrestling mother has been diagnosed with cancer, her father is missing, her sister is dating the ghostly Dredgeman, and her brother has turned traitor with the rival theme park, The World of Darkness. Throw in the Bird Man and his promises as he lures Ava to the swampy Underworld, and you can see why this was shortlisted for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.
4. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Not one for the faint of heart, Geek Love presents readers with Boston-born aristocrat turned geek Lil Binewski and her husband Al, who literally create their own freak show when Lil’s biting the heads off live chickens doesn’t pull in the crowds like it used to. With each pregnancy, Lil devours pesticides and drugs and covers herself in radiation to ensure the children she bears are freakish enough to make a living from. Narrated by one of their offspring, Olympia the albino hunchbacked dwarf, this is strangeness taken to the next level.
5. The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay
An historical novel set amid the turbulent background of American Vaudeville in 1919 – when their father loses his job and dies, the Turner sisters’ mother decides the only way to stay afloat and start living a more exciting life is vaudeville. Gert, Winnie, and Kit travel by train from town to town with their mother, Nell. Along the way, they meet diverse performers, fall in love and have their hearts broken, and face fate they never would have anticipated at the dawn of a new era in America.
6. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
“Opens at Nightfall. Closes at Dawn.” reads the black sign of white letters hung upon the gates. This is a circus that comes and goes as it pleases. No announcements precede it, but a cloud of fireflies in the darkness that become lit tents, and then a new sign: “Le Cirque des Rêves. The Circus of Dreams.” Illusionists Celia and Marco must compete. Unbeknownst to them, the winner will be decided fatally.
7. The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Recently reviewed on AmReading, The Museum of Extraordinary Things is similar in vein to The Night Circus. Set in New York City in 1911, Hoffman’s novel follows Coralie Sardie, a girl with webbed fingers kept as a mermaid act in her father’s strange circus on Coney Island. One night, Coralie stumbles across runaway photographer Eddie Cohen by the Hudson River and they join up in a quest to unravel the truth behind the case of a missing girl.
Do you prefer your carnival fiction more historical or with a greater touch of fantasy?
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Featured image via Comic Book
h/t Huffington Post