Filler content with nightmare carnival

Following on from Monday’s post, here’s the second part of a feature on anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow that originally appeared in Black Static #45:-


NIGHTMARE CARNIVAL (Dark Horse pb, 384pp, $19.99) is an anthology that takes a look at the dark side of carnival life, with an introduction by Geek Love author Katherine Dunn explaining the appeal of carnivals. There follows a preface by the editor and then opening story ‘Scapegoats’ by N. Lee Wood in which a casual act of abuse results in an elephant running amok, with dire consequences. It’s a story in which the appeal of carnie life is vividly realised on the page, but also with an appreciation of how tenuous the carnies’ position can be, wholly reliant on the good will of those encountered on the road, and how easily it can all turn sour, as happens here with grotesque scenes of violence that rend the reader’s heart for their sheer senselessness.

Priya Sharma’s ‘The Firebrand’ tells of the tragic circumstances that led to the breakup of a family circus, told from the viewpoint of a writer trying to uncover the truth behind what took place and find out who the guilty party was. It’s a compelling piece, with engaging characters and a narrative drive that holds the attention all the way, and surprises for the reader as we learn the true nature of the eponymous performer, and underlying it all an awareness of circus life and how empty it can become. ‘Work, Hook, Shoot, Rip’ by Nick Mamatas celebrates the carnival tradition of wrestling challenges issued to members of the public, but here the act goes horribly wrong when the Klan get involved and there’s a terrible fate for both combatants, the story written in a convincing and agreeable tone of voice, and demonstrating an awareness of the tricks of trade that reinforce verisimilitude, with the writer seeming to take real joy in the telling.

A. C. Wise’s ‘And the Carnival Leaves Town’ tells the story of a detective who begins to suspect that a series of disappearances and killings are linked to visits over many decades by a travelling carnival. There are hints of something terrible taking place beyond the surface details, but more significantly this is a story in which the predominant feeling is one of sadness for all the lost opportunities, the failure to grasp what is offered and take a chance on the miraculous and/or love. In ‘Corpse Rose’ by Terry Dowling, Jem Renton encounters an Heirloom Carnival in the Australian outback and has to make decisions, choosing among the various exhibits, that determine the carnival’s course for the future, how its magic will be used. It’s an amiable and playful piece, with strangeness woven deep into the narrative, seen most obviously in the nature of the exhibits and the general feel of greater forces at work, and an overriding sense that, just like the carnies, the author knows far more than he reveals.

There are echoes of Aickman’s ‘The Swords’ in ‘Last of the Fair’ by Joel Lane, with a carnival encounter that has implications for the story’s protagonist, the sleaziness of the setting in counterpoint to the transformations and underlying sense of wonder that infiltrates the narrative. In ‘A Small Part in the Pantomime’ Glen Hirshberg returns to the small town setting first delineated in his story ‘Mr. Dark’s Carnival’, with a group of academics trying to uncover what actually happened before and only finding themselves involved in a greater mystery, Hirshberg excellent at drawing his cast of characters, showing the petty rivalries of the academic world, and then throwing it all into relief through an encounter with the numinous. Set in the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, ‘Hibbler’s Minions’ by Jeffrey Ford sees a carnival under attack by a new form of flea circus. There are echoes of Gremlins in the text and the story could easily be interpreted in science fictional terms, with the fleas reified as nanotechnology, but that’s all largely beside the point as the ideas on display here are ultimately all just window dressing for a very human tale of how one “freak” helps to save another.

‘Swan Song and Then Some’ by Dennis Danvers tells of a singer with an incredible range, but one who has to die and be resurrected to complete her performance. At the heart of the story is a subtext about the cost of beauty, of how much we pay for those rare moments when people excel both themselves and our expectations, and if we, not to mention innocent others, are willing to give up what is asked for. Genevieve Valentine gives us the story of ‘The Lion Cage’, with a cruel lion tamer and his two charges that seem to be nothing like others of their kind, possessed of intelligence and a strange ability. It’s a satisfying piece, one in which the bad guy gets what is coming to him and the good guy has to suffer to achieve his personal justice, with mystery woven into the text.

Child abuse is central to ‘The Darkest Part’ by Stephen Graham Jones, the prompt for an act of revenge against a clown in adulthood, but this in turn leads to a realisation on the part of the protagonist of how events really went down all those years ago and how he has been fooling himself ever since. This is a grim and disturbing story, with unsettling scenes of torture and abuse, all of which stands alongside a deeply felt portrait of a father’s love for his son and willingness to protect him at all costs, even though it seems his sanity is the first thing to go. The father in ‘The Popping Fields’ by Robert Shearman, a man who fashions balloon animals, wants to protect his daughter, but he fails to do so, instead finding his way to another realm where he is lord of all he surveys, his helplessness in the real world replaced by an almost casual omnipotence. It’s a story in which fantasy compensates for the failures of reality, but with a solemn face shown to the world in the telling.

For my money the best story in the book is Nathan Ballingrud’s ‘Skullpocket’ in which three young ghouls find their way up into the surface world, one of them becoming a leading citizen of the town in which they subsequently reside. A gripping story, eloquently told and with a rich vein of black humour running through it, each event slotting into a greater narrative framework, past and future melding, it’s a work in which the sense of awe mingles with compassion, and I loved every single word. Though I was impressed by the quality of the prose and ideas, ‘The Mysteries’ by Livia Llewellyn, in which a woman defeats her vampire like grandmother by giving birth to an ancient carnevale, was the piece I had the most difficulty getting a handle on. It’s a story which is obliquely told and with no real attempt at credibility, instead giving us a feel of magic realism in play, and imagery that will linger in the mind long after the story is done.

Laird Barron brings down the curtain with ‘The Screaming Elk, MT’ in which a femme fatale with a history is enlisted to help end a fifty year old curse centred on the Gallows Brothers Carnival, the story action packed and high energy, with hard boiled characters and plenty of twists and turns to the plot. It’s a thrilling end to what I consider to be the best anthology I read in 2014.


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