The Circus of Dr Lao. Book Review

laoTHE CIRCUS OF DOCTOR LAO by Charles G. Finney
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, p/b, 160pp, £9.99
Reviewed by Chris Morgan

You’ve probably read this; certainly you’ll have heard of it. This satirical novella has enjoyed many US and UK editions since its first publication in 1935. It brings together small-minded, small-town America with the greatest collection of fantasy creatures ever assembled.

The elderly Chinese Doctor Lao (pronounced Lo) arrives one hot August day in Abalone, Arizona with a large array of attractions packed into three small animal-drawn wagons. The ignorant locals mostly fail to comprehend Doctor Lao’s unique wonders. Even when they attend the circus and are treated to the Doctor’s detailed descriptions, the Abalonians tend to be unimpressed. They can’t recognise a unicorn or a golden ass, they can’t agree on whether one particular cage holds a bear or a Russian, they dismiss the Medusa as a fake. The entire book (like all of Finney’s writing) is suffused with Chinese references – he served in the US Army there in the 1920s.

Finney was a journalist by profession. Even at the age of thirty, working on this, his first book, he was a very polished writer. The Circus Of Doctor Lao is full of wit and sly humour. For instance, one of the host of locals is Mr Etaoin, a proof-reader on Abalone’s local paper. ETAOIN, as you may or may not know and Finney doesn’t explain, is the first column of keys on the now obsolete compositor’s typesetting machine (analogous to QWERTYUIOP on a keyboard).

Miss Agnes Birdsong is a young high school English teacher; after an encounter with a satyr she is never quite the same again. Widow Mrs Howard T. Cassan pays for her fortune to be told by Apollonius, who is never wrong, but she refuses to believe that her future life will be boringly uneventful with no riches, no men and no friends. A middle-aged wife called Kate tries to unmask Medusa (despite warnings to view her via a mirror) and is turned into a statue of Carnelian chalcedony.

This is not a book you could describe as politically correct. Racial stereotypes abound. Doctor Lao himself is well educated with fluent English, delivering brief lectures on his animals, detailing where he found them and what they eat. He waxes lyrical about the chimera, the roc and the werewolf. Yet he is capable of assuming a coolie voice to avoid some explanations. Finney refers to “chinks” and uses the n-word but this is in the dialogue of his characters: he knows what he’s doing.

To be honest, this is something less than a novel, though it’s so original, cleverly conceived and such fun that its structure is not a problem. The characters are wonderfully credible; I expect similar characters still exist, eighty years on. The book recognises and, in the end, laughs at its own unanswered questions.

At the back of the book is The Catalogue, marvellous annotated lists of the characters and other things, a joy to read and reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Also in this new edition is a useful and perceptive Introduction by Michael Dirda. While I would urge you all to buy a copy of this seminal fantasy (it’s echoed in the works of Ray Bradbury and Peter S. Beagle) there are UK and US illustrated editions, rare and valuable but worth seeking out.