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The Circus of Dr. Lao is Weirder than I Imagined

Charles G. Finney, the older one, was an American essayist born in 1792, who wrote extensively about Christianity in the 19th century. He was a Presbyterian minister and leader in the Second Great Awakening in the United States, and he's the first result when searching for "Charles G. Finney." A search for his books will turn up a mixture of Christian apologia and strange fantasy tales, sharing the same author name. The Circus of Dr. Lao is the latter, written by Charles G. Finney's great-grandson of the same name, and it's a real doozy of an example. Written by the more recent Charles G. Finney (born in 1905) and published in 1939, The Circus of Dr. Lao is something of a forgotten classic of fantasy literature, for reasons that might not be immediately clear. The forgotten part, that is.

But you should skip the Introductions and Forewords. At least until you've read the actual story. And probably after you read it, don't bother coming back to read them. I'm pretty sure they're included to pad the word count, if I'm honest.

The Introduction in my copy wants to tell me about the captivating subtlety and genre-spanning significance of the tale, but you shouldn't go into your first read with that much pressure hanging over your head.

The truth about The Circus of Dr. Lao is that it's more fun, and more funny, than any of the stuffy posturing will let on. It also let me down so hard in its short 120ish pages that I had to change almost all of this article, because I felt pretty confident for the first 50 pages and wrote something entirely different.

The titular (and mysteriously ubiquitous) Dr. Lao is a playful host, flitting around his circus to entertain, and occasionally to mock, his guests. His circus is a roulette of experiences; some vulgar, others transcendent, and still others catastrophic and potentially world-ending.

It's certainly Weird. There's no shortage of strange creatures and magical occurrences. And, taking place in the scorched deserts of an Arizona town, it's geographically Western, at least.

The rub here is that it's not a Weird Western, at least not by the standards that I've been using.

It takes place in the 1930's, in the sludgy wake of the Great Depression, and while being more recent doesn't disqualify it on its own, there's a western feeling that's missing right off the bat. Abalone, Arizona feels much too suburban to play host to a proper western. It's a place that has put its cowboy roots behind it. Here there are sedans and salesmen, rather than saddles and sidearms.

So we'll proceed with caution, knowing that this novel is outside of the scope of our Weird Western goals.

Yeah, I guess that has a pretty weird vibe...

The novel is mainly concerned with its menagerie of oddities, with almost no narrative at all. The entirety of its story is basically contained in the newspaper ad described within the first few pages.

What made me excited to read The Circus of Dr. Lao at first was how I felt Finney was skewering the racism and ignorance that can exist in a small town. Dr. Lao is a man of exceptional eloquence and intelligence, but he slips into caricature when dealing with the pushiest of Abalone's residents. He becomes what they expect of him when it's useful, and there's a real sense that he is mocking and playing with them.

Before long, however, it becomes clear that mostly the racism isn't satirical; it simply is. From depictions of the lusty dark-skinned natives, only capable of violence or sex, carrying off a pale white woman; to the sea serpent's tale of his visit to some remote Pacific island, the racism abounds. Yes, even the magical, Asian, thousand-year-old talking snake talks like a racist Southerner.

One aspect that is more fantasy than western is the ending. Dr. Lao's final act is a feverish ceremony that blends sex and violence, and ultimately summons the actual, literal Judeo-Christian devil. He's there, at the end, and it leads to my absolute favorite line, spoken by Dr. Lao to his sorcerer:

"Better stop it, Apollonius," Dr. Lao warned, "or it will be getting out of hand in a minute."

He says these words while looking at the literal devil, you know: the one from Hell. Dr. Lao is a master of understatement.

No, I haven't plucked this image from your fever nightmares.

I don't think I would recommend this story, for a lot of reasons. First, it's not a Weird West story, and that's been my purpose in this blog project. Second, there's no real story to be found. Even the advent of the forces of Hell comes across as just another spectacle in the circus, rather than the climax of a gripping story.

My disappointment with the story feels like the kind of realization one might come to with a funny childhood friend. You think the friend was funny, telling racist or insensitive jokes ironically, as a way to highlight their absurdity. You give them the benefit of the doubt, thinking that it's clever satire, until you realize the hard truth: it's not satire. It's just racism and sexism. So, no: I don't think you should bother with The Circus of Dr. Lao. It's a shame, because it has a strong start and a distinctive voice, but ultimately it uses that voice to say nothing much of note or interest.

Next time in the history of Weird Westerns: something else entirely!

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