The story is set in a dusty small town, Abalone, in Arizona during the Depression. The inhabitants are all rather narrow-minded simpletons. But Dr. Lao’s circus rolls into town and changes the lives of the townsfolk forever.
I am really happy with this new release by Gollancz as part of their Fantasy Masterworks imprint. Because The Circus of Dr. Lao is a rare book, but highly regarded, and now I finally have the opportunity to read it. It is very short (153 pages) and quite old (1935) for the Fantasy genre. This was pre-Tolkien and all those epic series, but after Lord Dunsany and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and around the time that Robert E. Howard started penning his Conan sword and sorcery.
Finney’s book is part of this trope that was seen more often around that time, of stories of oriental masterminds who travel around and do slightly horrific things. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one such stories, and the tales about the evil doctor Fu Manchu. Dr. Lao here too is this mysterious Chinese person who could be a wise sage or some diabolical madman.
It sounds very familiar to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1961), a fantasy/horror in which an evil traveling circus visits a Midwestern town. And it could be a spiritual ancestor to this book. Bradbury was known to admire Finney’s book as well and he put it in an anthology that he edited. You can also find echoes of it in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968), which features a travelling circus with strange captured beasts and an odd magician.
But Dr. Lao is a strange book. It doesn’t do what you would expect it to do. It doesn’t follow any main character in particular and doesn’t have much of a plot. It jumps from strange occurrences at the circus to pamphlets to speeches made by Dr. Lao. The opening is nicely cinematic with us jumping from character to character all around the city, and everyone has a different take on this circus coming into town. They all see different things in the magical beasts of the parade. The people are all a bit odd, described in a Terry Pratchett kind of way.
These speeches by Dr. Lao sometimes take the energy from the story and halt the book in its tracks. It is funny though how Dr. Lao waxes excitedly about the deep philosophical implications of his mythical beasts, and the townsfolk simply go like “Meh it looks fake. Let’s move on.” Their lack of interest and education is sometimes played for laughs, and sometimes mocked by Finney.
The book feels unsatisfying, even though Finney knows how to use language, because it doesn’t seem to have a point to it. It plays with a lot of themes, like small town mindedness and mythology and comedy but it doesn’t really stick to any particular thing. It is more like a collection of vignettes of townsfolk encountering mythological beasts. Finneys writing skill lifts it to something worth checking out.