Literary Hub

Sideshows and Circuses: 6 Novels That Define the Carnival Genre

circus clowns

The carnival has always been more of an idea than a place for me. A midway of the mind, of the imagination. A maze to in which to escape inward rather than a destination to run away to. I have no personal experience with the carnival lifestyle, no parents walking the high wire under the big top, no siblings swallowing swords. Not even an errant cousin selling cotton candy or handing out sad little fish in plastic bags behind the ring toss game. That I know of, at least.

My family tree is draped with con artists and questionable folk like Spanish moss swinging low in the breeze. Perhaps it is this familiarity with the bizarre—and with criminals and mystics, lost causes and ghost whisperers—that has always drawn me to carnival lore.

Or maybe it’s because of Dumbo. Disney’s 1941 animated film scared the hell out of me as an impressionable child. It haunted me because of the darkness I felt lurking beneath the Technicolor surface of the story, the sinister strains of anxiety and cruelty, of menace and unutterable sadness running through the silly plot of a flying elephant with giant ears. I think I only saw the film once or twice, and certainly not since I was a very young child, but its powerful images stayed with me: fire, the storm, the circling crows, chaos.

And that haunting never seemed to go away, became an itch in need of scratching: reading Ralph Helfer’s memoir Modoc, watching Neil Gaiman’s MirrorMask, a night at the Cirque du Soleil. Every time I rubbed up against something connected to a circus or carnival the itch got stronger. By the time I finally encountered HBO’s jaw-dropping television series Carnivale on DVD in 2007, the novel that would become Miraculum had already begun itself in my mind.

Despite flying elephant nightmares, the images from a written story are infinitely more powerful than what can be depicted on the screen. Bradbury’s maze of mirrors and Katherine Dunn’s mutilations. Erin Morgenstern’s Wishing Tree. Over the last century there has been a sea of books set in the circus, borrowing elements of the carnival or simply preying on the more primal emotions elicited by tent flaps snapping on a windy night, midway lights dazzling the eyes. Here are but a few that deserve a place in the center ring.


William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley

Almost as old as Helen Aberson’s Dumbo, which, interestingly, was a Roll-A-Book—a box containing a scroll version of the text and illustrations which would roll in front of the viewer opening by means of wheels twisted on its side—is William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 Nightmare Alley. Dark, gritty, at times disturbing and not for the faint of heart, Gresham’s cult favorite skims along the underbelly of carnival life, exposing all of the ugliness to be found between the tents, but much of the raw beauty as well. Nightmare Alley checks all the boxes, too, for many of the themes and motifs that usually go along with carnival books: tarot, religion, swindling, the occult and a departure from reality, though on more of a psychological level. If you’re a fan of old-school noir, lowbrow art or don’t mind taking a dip in the gutter, you can’t pass this one up.

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

None of the books on this list are as brutal as Nightmare Alley, but Ray Bradbury’s 1962 coming-of-age classic borders on horror, if in a Stranger Things kind of way. Something Wicked This Way Comes was nostalgic even in its own time and is doubly so now. Bradbury’s tale of two boys confronting a powerful evil brought to a small town by a traveling carnival has been influential on not only the horror genre, but any novel steeped in American nostalgia. It’s the sort of story that takes you back to the mysteries of childhood, even if you first read it as an adult, a book that lingers in the imagination long after you put it down.

Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

Fast-forward twenty years: Katherine Dunn’s 1989 Geek Love is the first of what I’ll call “modern carnival novels.” Just as the story jumps back and forth from the past to present lives of Chick and her family, the novel’s debut bridged two eras—that of the mysterious traveling carnival bringing rare entertainment to small towns across America and the modern carnival as we know it, not much more than a county fair, touring outfits hired on the cheap to set up in abandoned Wal-Mart parking lots. Geek Love is polarizing; readers either adore it or loath it, but I’ve never met anyone without strong feelings about Dunn’s bizarre world of scientific experimentation and sibling rivalry, all squarely set on a sideshow bally.

sara gruen

Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen’s 2006 Water for Elephants brought a whole new dimension to a steadily building collection of carnival novels. Her multi-award winning tale takes place among a 1930s traveling circus—side note, while the terms “circus” and “carnival” are often used interchangeably, an easy way to tell them apart is to remember that a carnival has a midway filled with sideshows and ballys, while a circus is the show taking place under the big top tent, hence a carnival can contain a circus, but a circus can’t contain a carnival—and brings the carnival theme out of the pulp section and onto more literary shelves. Part love story, part historical fiction, Water for Elephants is the beautifully rendered story of a boy running away to join the circus and falling for its star. I would argue that Gruen opened up the world of carnival literature for a whole new generation of readers across the genre spectrum.

night circus

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

And then, of course, there is The Night Circus, which is right there with Water for Elephants when it comes to the most recognizable modern carnival tale. And just as Gruen opened up carnival lore to the world of literary fiction, Morgenstern’s 2011 novel was so successful it grounded carnival books in the YA genre. Many young adult novels followed the precedent set by Morgernstern, including Stephanie Garber’s Caraval series and Gwenda Bond’s Girl on a Wire, but, in my opinion, neither have quite captured the mystery and seduction of a carnival in the way that Celia and Marco’s complicated game of magic does as it plays out among the tents of the enigmatic Cirque des Reves.

stephen king

Stephen King, Joyland

In many ways, carnival novels are having a bit of a revival, with new books every year drawing on the circus setting or the carnival lifestyle in interesting, unexpected ways. Emily St. John Mandel takes the carnival post-apocalyptic in Station Eleven, while Jess Richards plays with experimental structure and lyricism in City of Circles. The collection Carniepunk goes in the direction of urban fantasy, whereas both Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things are set in sideshow theme parks, rather than the traveling variety. To wrap things up, though, I’m going to circle around to the beginning in true carnival fashion. Stephen King’s 2013 Joyland, a pulpy crime novel set in the 1970s brings us back to the raw grit of Nightmare Alley and the waves of nostalgia floating on the ether from the pen of Bradbury. Joyland is a deliberate harkening back to the darker days of the circus story and a reminder that our unending fascination with carnival literature can be satisfied in myriad ways.

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