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Written By:

Ian White

When an enigmatic little Chinaman called Dr Lao visits the sleepy dustbowl town of Abalone, Arizona, and announces he is opening a circus, it immediately stirs up interest in the depressed population. When the townsfolk watch Dr Lao lead a parade of three carriages through the Main Street they can’t believe their eyes – there’s a sphinx, a gigantic snake, a satyr and… is that a bear in the cage or a Russian? It seems as if no-one can agree upon what they just saw. But stranger is to come – there’s also a chimera, a snake-haired Medusa hungry to turn the unwary to stone, a mythical fortune teller condemned to speak only the truth, and – for the finale – a cast of thousands primed to sacrifice a beautiful young woman to a vengeful pagan God.

The Circus of Dr Lao was first published in 1935, but reads as if it was written yesterday and moves at an exhilarating pace. Finney’s writing is superb. Dr Lao, his incredible mythological menagerie and an impressive cross-section of Abalone’s residents are all perfectly rendered in a tale which combines fantasy, mystery and – in one particular sequence – weird eroticism underpinned by some vicious satire and black humour. In fact, much of the dialogue – particularly from Dr Lao – is delivered in such a nonsensical and hypnotically sing-song style that the effect is rather like reading a Dr Seuss story for adults. Overly sensitive readers might pick up on one or two expressions Finney uses which – let’s say – were commonplace in 1935 but aren’t very PC today, but that’s no reason to pass this by.

The novel was adapted into a terrific 1964 movie called The 7 Faces of Dr Lao (why isn’t this on DVD in the UK?) and inspired – among many others – Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s easy to understand why. Although its story (what there is of it) is deceptively slight (a whole new subplot had to be added to bulk out the film adaptation), The Circus of Dr Lao is an experience you shouldn’t miss and a trip into the dark heart of a Big Top you will never forget.



Ian White

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