Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Circus of Dr. Lao

"Science? Science is nothing but classification. Science is just tagging a name to everything." (Dr. Lao)

This weekend I read The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney. Many of you may be familiar with it as the source material for the George Pal movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Others might know it as one of the classic fantasy novels of the mid-Twentieth century. Published in 1935, it would have an influences on novels ranging from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes to Stephen King's Needful Things.

People like me, who saw the movie long before they read the book, will find very much that is familiar in The Circus of Dr. Lao. Like the movie, the book is centred around the visit of Dr. Lao's circus to the small Arizona town of Abalone. The movie also quotes lines of dialogue from the book almost verbatim. The movie played out many of the scenes from the book very similarly as well. That having been said, there are some major differences between The Circus of Dr. Lao and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, enough that many purists reject the movie even if it is a cult film regarded as a classic by some. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two works is that while 7 Faces of Dr. Lao has a linear plot with one central plotline, The Circus of Dr. Lao is essentially a collection of vignettes, linked by Dr. Lao's visit to Abalone, without a central plotline. Another difference is that while 7 Face of Dr. Lao is set in turn of the century America, The Circus of Dr. Lao takes place during the Depression.

The Circus of Dr. Lao is also a much darker work. In fact, it is darker even than many of the novels inspired by it, including Something Wicked This Way Comes and Needful Things. Finney's approach is one of both cynicism and irony. While the townsfolk of Abalone go to the circus wanting to see something remarkable, ultimately many of them cannot accept it when they come face to face with genuine wonders. Finney compounds this in the fact that, with but few exceptions, he does not tell us the consequences of the townspeople's encounters with the circus, as if whatever happened to the townsfolk after Dr. Lao's visit matters very little. There is also a current of eroticism and sexuality running through the book that is surprising for something published in 1935. Although there is absolutely nothing explicit and it is mild by today's standards, it is clear that Finney was writing a fantasy work for adults and not children. It is definitely not The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Finney's cynicism, irony, and sarcasm is in fine display in a "Catalogue" he includes after the end of the book. The Catalogue lists every single character, even those we meet in passing, the various mythological figures mentioned in the book, the various towns, and even "Questions, Contradictions, and Obscurities." The Catalogue reads to some degree like Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, with Finney often providing caustic observations and comments rather than definitions and explanations. In some respects, it is the funniest part of the book.

I do have to add a word of warning here. While The Circus of Dr. Lao is in many respects ahead of its time, it is also a book very much of its time. Occasionally terms which we today consider racist do occur (fortunately nothing as severe as the "N" word). The people of Abalone are very much people of their time, which means that they are very much racist in attitude and suspicious of foreigners as well. Charles Finney pulls no punches in this book, so he felt no need to whitewash his characters so that they became something that people in 1935 were not.

It is easy to see why The Circus of Dr. Lao is considered a classic fantasy book and why it has had such influence. The Circus of Dr. Lao is funny, sarcastic, full of irony, unconventional, and, even after so many similar novels, starkly original. I must confess that I have never read a book quite like it. Anyone who is a fan of the movie, appreciates great fantasy works, or has a slightly off kilter sense of humour will enjoy The Circus of Dr. Lao.

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