We read this book for my real life book club; out of three options, this is the one I voted for and I am so glad that it won! So I get all excited because not only are there going to be carnitas and a new baby and a good long car ride so I can listen to some podcasts, when I arrive (following directions that were uber-complicated on the page but perfectly accurate and easy to follow in the looking), there’s an Adel Medium Brown kitchen! It was nice to see an example of my experiment functioning in the field. But I digress. I’m the last one to arrive (although actually on time for once), and everyone’s hanging out with wine and the baby, and it’s so cozy and nice that I almost fall down when I hear from EVERYONE that they HATED this book.
They hated the book. I loved the book. I mean, it’s one thing when I hate a book that everyone else loves, because they just don’t know how to read books as well as I do and miss all the glaring errors in style, characterization, theme, and genre. But when I love a book everyone else hates? That’s harsh. I’ve never been wrong at book club before. It was a novel experience.
This book creeped me out. It wasn’t scary so much as it was upsetting. The plot was pretty thin, but it was all mood–and what a mood. Autumn, carnival, whatever. Nightshade/Holloway = Sin/Innocence, whatever. The older father confronted in his recent relative infirmity with the fact that life will go on without him, getting better. Carnivals are scary, boring. But the way the evil is practiced! Unbelievable. I thought the idea of birth and death, and the damage that living life (and unliving life) does to your body and your mind, and being forced to face the facts with actual physical manifestations of people who are being kept alive beyond their will, shrunk into shadows of their former selves, so covered with art(ifice) that the true self is unreachable… (I don’t really have an off-the-cuff theory for what the witch represents; maybe a sort of mythical fate). People can find themselves damaged by decisions they make (like when Jim tries to ride the carousel) or by unforeseen accidents (I got the impression that some of the circus freaks were actual victims), and they can give in to despair or they can resist it. Most of the horror in the book was implied, but the chase scene at night, where the witch is looking for the boys in her balloon, was actually frightening. I was pretty upset by the thought that someone could tattoo my name on his arm and I’d be the next prey of some blind witch in a hot air balloon tracking me with slime.
Everyone at book club who hated the book blamed the style. They found it overwritten, pretentious, and tedious. I guess those things are all true. I looked up the one-star reviews at Amazon and basically agreed with all of them, but found other things to like. I haven’t read so much Ray Bradbury that I could say if this book is indicative of his style or not (I did find many parts of The Martian Chronicles boring), but I didn’t really notice it. I’m not usually one who reads for style, however, so I was probably completely oblivious to it. I tend to read kinda fast, so it’s highly likely that I didn’t even read all the words that everyone else responsibly sat through. Maybe it’s that I only really have time to read when it is 11:30 PM or later, while in bed and fighting sleep. Whatever it was, I found the mystery and the mood and the gruesome torture of people and the fear of being on the run and the sadness that surrounds even youthful boys who go nowhere if not running sufficient to get me through to the end (even if the final battle was a little hoaky… or the loose ends left too loose… or the women were perfunctory at best…).
Another part of what captivated me about this book was probably the idea that these carnival owners–Cooger and Dark–have been traveling through time as well as through space, exposing people’s dark demons throughout history. It’s a trope I like (I really got into that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the Hansel and Gretel demon-things in Sunnydale: “Gingerbread” from Season 3). It’s me indulging in a bit of Joseph Campbell, I guess, but this mythos about the things that delight and haunt us being the same for every generation is sort of a comfort to me. I like to think that people separated through time are still the same people, just with different stuff. It’s a feel-good story that may have no basis in archaeology or human psychology–why should humans be unchanged if all other domesticated animals are profoundly different from their wild ancestors?–but I like it. To wax a little philosophical and hippy-dippy, it’s like it doesn’t matter if history can keep no record of me after I’m gone, because I am a person and people will be remembered and anyone in the future who knows him- or her- or co-self (to placate the genderless descendants who will be reading my own personal blog, I’m sure) will also know me.
Plus I can always hold out hope that I’ll turn into some kind of Mitochondrial Eve for the next iteration of sapient life on this planet.
I’m not sure if I’d read this book again. I don’t think I have to. Whatever message I am finding in its pages (I acknowledge that I am probably seeing what I need to see in it, and I don’t care to psychoanalyze myself about it today), I have understood. The characters of Will and Jim and Jim’s dad weren’t characters enough to pal around with more (I don’t think they were supposed to represent real boys; at best they stood in for two kinds of boyness), and the town was not a rich setting. I’ve thought about looking up a movie version, but I don’t care that much about watching it. I don’t want to see the things that happen. I sort of already have, in vague, amorphous ways. I definitely recommend the book to people to read, but I don’t know which people. It’s not a title I have in mind for anybody specific. It’s not even really scary. It’s just full of stuff you don’t want to think about happening to you, because they are things you might not be able to stop.