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Fantasy at the Fair

The Tent and the Moon by RKMStudiosOver at the Fantasy-Faction Book Club we’ve recently finished our October read: Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. This is a story about two boys and one father who find themselves facing an evil carnival. Reactions to the book were mixed, but there was one thing everyone seemed to agree on – the wonderful atmosphere that the author conjures.

This feels like the perfect time of year for travelling circus and carnival stories to me, when the nights are crisp and long, and the trees cast that particular kind of spindly silhouette against the sky. But what is it about circus, fair and carnival stories that seems to connect so strongly with us, that makes this such a perfect setting for fantasy books?

Circuses, travelling fairs and carnivals feel like places where anything can happen. They’re places where we are supposed to be amazed, delighted and shocked, and there are a huge variety of things to do and see. These tend to be things we wouldn’t normally encounter in day to day life: magic shows, rides, acrobats, animals from all over the world – it’s no wonder that these places already have a fantastical feel.

The Circus by scarlet-dragonchildAdded to this is the fact that the circus/fair workers often dress up or present their acts and attractions in supernatural terms: ghost trains, magicians, fortune tellers, performers taking on the roles of ghosts and demons, fantastical beasts on the carousel, and so much more. Walking around the tents and attractions at night, surrounded by the music and lights and the smell of fairground food – frying donuts, hot dogs, popcorn, mushy peas (Ok, that one’s probably just a UK thing) – it would be easy to feel like you had walked into another world, a special place where the boundary between our world and the supernatural world was thin.

Circus by luisbeltranThis could be delightful and magical, but it could also be frightening. What lurks behind the rides and inside the tents? Is the magic show really pretend? Are the ghost-train demons really just plastic and cardboard? What if there is more at stake than we realise? I can still remember the creepy thrill I got from an early Goosebumps (or it might have been Point Horror) book set in an evil fair, where the rides came to life and opened doorways into monster realms. The fair and the carnival are places that already combine ideas of danger and fun, risk and reward. It doesn’t take much to see why they are such wonderful settings for fantasy, paranormal and horror stories.

In Something Wicked This Way Comes, the rides themselves may not be evil, but they can trap a person by using their own fear and desperation against them. Here, the hall of mirrors has become a maze that shows a person the all-too-few years ahead of them, or the things they have lost from their youth. The carousel can take away or grant years to a person’s life as they spin round and round, backwards or forwards in age.

Carousel by Blackpassion777Carousels in particular seem to be objects full of magic and possibility. Everyone who’s seen Mary Poppins remembers the carousel animals carrying their riders away from the ride, and has probably secretly hoped this would happen the next time they visited a fairground. There’s definitely something magical and perhaps just a little sinister about the calliope music. Nowadays the carousel is often the neglected ride somewhere to the side of the travelling fair, unpopular compared to the bigger, faster attractions. It looks a little outdated but elegant, sitting almost empty, or perhaps running with no one on it, like a strange Victorian artefact trapped in time.

It’s not just the rides that might seem mysterious or even a little sinister in travelling fairs, circuses and carnivals. The fact that the show can be packed up and moved from place to place gives the whole thing a certain romanticism, but also a sense of unaccountability. If magic and supernatural creatures were real, what better place for them than a group that is constantly on the move, never staying for long enough for their secret to be discovered?

Pantomime (cover art)While this makes travelling circuses and fairs a popular setting for evil beings and criminals in fiction, like those in Something Wicked This Way Comes, it also offers the opposite – a haven for people who are rejected, persecuted or discriminated against by the world, or people who do not fit in with the conventional lifestyles or rules of their home. For example, in a story with a historical setting, a circus or carnival might offer a place where a woman could find more freedom than elsewhere in her society, or where a person with a handicap or physical difference might feel more accepted. In Laura Lam’s brilliant Pantomime, intersex character Micah and many other characters find an acceptance amongst some of the circus folk that they do not find at home.

These settings are a great place to find more diverse, empowered characters with a different outlook on life. However, where there is acceptance there could also be pain and misery. Circuses and carnivals can be sinister places for those involved too – potential cruelty and exploitation of workers and animals, from both paying public and those running the show, means that danger can come from all sides.

The Night Circus (detail)So why are circus, carnival and travelling fair settings so popular in fantasy fiction? I think they’re popular for the same reasons that these places are so intriguing in real life. They are places where it feels like anything can happen, where magic seems real, where the line between worlds is thin. Where there is danger and fun and excitement, where we might experience the thrill of the slightly sinister. I think this feeling is perhaps captured best in the wonderful book, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The circus, the fair and the carnival are places where things are different and unexpected, where we can escape from the normal world for a night – in other words, a little bit like fantasy fiction itself.

Title image by RKMStudios.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Lucy Hounsom says:

    So glad you mentioned Pantomime – it’s a brilliant book and does indeed capture the slightly sinister, magical atmosphere of the circus / fairground. It also has one hell of a protagonist and some of the best characterisation I’ve read in ages. Required reading!

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