In our increasingly polarized society I think there’s one thing that I hope we can all agree upon, and that is: Carnies are creepy. And put those carnies in a traveling circus, and guess what? Über-creepy. There’s something about the way that they just appear in town one day and are gone another. They are supposed to dazzle spectators with amazing feats and grotesqueries, which may be real or fake. There is the sense that such carnivals are never completely what they seem to be. That they are never quite to be trusted.
This underlying theme has been at the center of a couple of books that I recently finished: 2011’s The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, which was first published in 1962.
Now, The Night Circus was one of the “it” books last year, which because I am curmudgeonly makes me initially skeptical about how good it might be. The story takes in the decades before and just after the turn of the last century and follows the mysterious Le Cirque des Rêves. A magnificent circus of wonders that appears magically in a place and contains sights that no one has previously seen. The Cirque even has its own groupies – revêurs – that follow it around the globe (think very posh Deadheads). Brought into the orbit of the circus are two young orphans (Potteresque Warning!) – Marco, a lad who falls under the tutelage of a mysterious elderly man, and Celia, who ends up as the ward of her strange and demanding stage magician uncle.
Morgenstern weaves a patient tale (did I say slow? No. I said patient) that follows Celia and Marco (and a number of other characters) from their childhoods into early adulthood, and revolves around their influence on the circus as they learn their own forms of magic (Potteresque Warning!) and, of course, their star-crossed love. The language, I think tries to capture a by-gone time and I will say that Morgenstern certainly broke out the thesaurus for this story — each chapter had amazing, adjective-laden descriptions of the almost unbelievable creations that the Cirque (and Celia and Marco) produce.
In the end, the secret nature of Le Cirque is revealed, and the couple is torn between love and duty, choice and fate. And in the end, I liked The Night Circus. I liked the characters (both main and supporting) and I liked the story arcs, but I never quite felt fully committed to the whole thing. Perhaps because it felt so familiar — sort of Potter-y, but not quite as captivating, sort of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but not nearly as complex or awesome – it loses a little by comparison.
Three solid stars
Speaking of comparisons, where The Night Circus is gilded with a remarkable adjectival armor, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes seems practically under-written. This sparse story follows two best teenage friends, Jim and Will, as they discover that a strange circus has come to town. The two boys are yin and yang – Will straight as an arrow, Jim always willing to go off the path for something interesting. Their friendship is tested by the arrival of the circus and its awful proprietor, Mr. Dark.
The boys notice something strange happening to the people of the town – an everywhere small town America that probably never existed except in the nostalgia of peoples’ memories. Providing the adult sounding board is Will’s father, Charles Halloway, who initially comes across as a dissatisfied middle aged man, somewhat distant from his son.
With his simple and dreamlike prose, Bradbury tells the story of Something Wicked like a parable, which in a way it is. The boys learn the awful secret of the circus and are tempted by its power and promises, even though the husks of people it has used populate it. Mr. Dark seeks to corrupt and consume the boys, and failing that, destroy them. Will’s father is forced to face his own life’s choices and possibly sacrifice everything to save the boys. There are some absolutely horrific scenes as the carnies seek the boys – small, private horrors that resonate more because their world seems so personal.
This is a masterful book examines the two-edged sword of both craving and fearing change in our lives. The boys yearn to be adults, but fear that growing up will change their friendship. Will’s father must reckon his life as he approaches old age and the siren song of getting a “do over”. Because really, how many of us haven’t said: if I knew then what I know now?
The first time I read this book I was probably the boys’ age and it struck me as a creepy, scary story – sort of the predecessor to Stephen King. Re-reading it now, at an age much closer to Mr. Halloway’s, I can look back on my own life’s temptations, choices, and changes and appreciate it even more.
And you can guarantee I won’t be getting on any carousel anytime soon.