Probably one of the first circus- or carnival-themed stories I ever read and fell in love with was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I was quite young, and I remember I loved it because it felt like it could happen to me in real life at any moment: I would be walking home from school one chilly autumn afternoon, and I would see a poster taped to a wall promising a traveling show of amazing wonders, and I would attend, and… Something Amazing Would Happen.
I wouldn’t know what, exactly – it would be impossible to know, because all of that would be kept veiled behind the curtain until I’d paid my fee and taken my seat. But finally the lights would go down, and then…
That’s how these things work. We all know it. It’s a story model that’s written into our bones. It doesn’t have to be a circus, or a carnival, or even a show – consider the Faerie Market from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, when visitors from the other side of the wall flood the town offering mysterious goods and wares. One young man buys something… and Something Amazing Happens.
And of course it does. It’s a simple but profoundly appealing structure: a group of traveling strangers comes to a small town offering secrets and wonders. Someone from the town buys something or attends their show, and things become very… different.
That’s just how these things go. Though there’s a circus or showbiz trend currently running through publishing (to which I am, I promise you, an unwitting accessory), none of this is anything new. This is something quite old, and very, very wonderful.
The reasons for its appeal are many, especially within speculative fiction. The primary one, however, is that it’s really, really easy. So much fantasy involves a disaffected person from a mundane world tripping and falling into a fantastical new one. But it’s so much easier to explain and believe, isn’t it, if the amazing stuff just shows up one night, driven in from who-knows-where, primed and packaged and ready to go, and it doesn’t even make any bones about it being amazing – it advertises it, plasters its fantastic nature on every wall and on every sign, shouts it in the streets and from the rooftops: “Come and see something truly astounding!”
The only thing is, this show isn’t lying about what it’s advertising. They’re serious. The magic tricks they do – like those of The Prestige, another good example of showbiz speculative fiction – are real.
And part of the ease of this model – especially for the writer – is that in shows like this, reality is already distorted. The mystery and wonder on which so much fantasy relies is already there, running and ready to go. When you enter the confines of the show, all the rules are suspended – all images are illusions, all truths are lies, and the velvet curtain is a tenuous, untrustworthy border between fact and fiction. And there is something musty and deceptive about these sorts of shows, anyway – after all, most of them originate in earlier eras: the circus was at its height in the 19th and early 20th century, as was vaudeville. And we all know that old things don’t follow our modern, cultured rules…
Which leads us to the last and probably thorniest reason writers and readers love performance fiction: the potential for metaphor is exponential. From Hamlet’s presentation of The Murder of Gonzago to “Club Silencio” of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, performance is a fantastic vantage point from which the writer can examine, well… anything. It’s riddled with lies that may be truth and vice versa, just like fiction… or life. Within the realm of performance, the writer can presuppose that, say, life is an act, or that the world is a stage on which we perform for a missing audience, or that the mystery is so much more enjoyable than the boring, crushing truth, or even that oldest of adages – that God is a comedian playing to an audience afraid to laugh. The performance model allows for all of these possibilities, big or small – in this distorted, unreal world, suggestion and assumption are all too easy.
My novel, The Troupe, is not exactly circus fiction. It’s about vaudeville, which was a much more individual experience sold and marketed across a much, much larger structure – single acts toured the country at random theaters, all at the whim of the booking offices, which controlled the touring circuits. And unlike the circus, when film became more predominant, many of vaudeville’s stars successfully made the transition, bringing the talents they’d honed on theater stages to the silver screen – though it meant killing vaudeville itself.
But even moreso, The Troupe isn’t so much about the performance or the milieu as the secrets the performers claim to be offering.
A man comes to town. He claims to hold secret and powerful truths. Truths you want to know, truths you need to know. You just have to show up, and listen.
In a way, it’s a lot like a book. It’s a secret world you can dip your toe into – it just replaces curtains and tents with covers and pages.