The Under-Circus and Other Tales
The delectably macabre cover art of The Under-Circus and Other Tales drew me in before I even opened this book. There’s something strangely unsettling about the circus. Perhaps it is the painted clowns, or the nomadic nature of the business. Or perhaps it is that old adage about running away to the circus which suggests tawdry secrets behind the sparkle of sequins. And The Under-Circus and Other Tales does not disappoint with plenty under the canvas to shock and entertain.
Robert Barry’s offerings underpin the collection with a series of connected stories on the circus theme, while wife A. Carina Barry provides the entre-act, showcasing zombies, dragons, and a particularly exigent neighbourhood watch committee. There are some lovely characters too, like the girl who offers up her baby brother’s heart so as to conjure up a dragon, or the bartending demon who smiles through fangs. For my taste, the literary essays, while hauntingly written, seem a little out of place in this collection, although readers looking for a pause from the pace and plotting of the stories may appreciate the change of register.
Overall, two stories stood out: Carina’s Zombie Master, and Robert’s The Sight. Written from the main character’s point of view in the style of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, Zombie Master tells of Nate, a man chained to a toilet and left for dead, while flesh eating creatures storm the neighbourhood. This could have been a zombie tale like any other, but instead the writer adds a gruesome twist to leave the reader cold. Robert’s The Sight, set in the travelling circus days of the Old West, is equally chilling and blackly comic. This story, though, gives us a glimpse of something else: the reason that children clamour to go to the circus. It offers the magic of the big-top, a show that rises daily out of sawdust, and that sense of amazement that occurs when people believe anything is possible.