Nothing captures the imagination quite like a circus, or to a smaller extent, a carnival come to town. Bright colours, entertainment, acrobats and trapeze artists and in times gone by, animals doing tricks, all serve to entice the imagination and make us think of fun!
Of course in these enlightened times, animal acts have been made illegal in many places because the animals were not well treated and were often kept in cages far too small and I applaud these changes as many others do, but we can still visit the old time circuses in our imaginations through the magic of books.
Starting when we are children, books about the magic of the circus can almost make us feel as if we’ve been there, even if we never have! Colouring and activity books often have circus themes and there is no shortage of stories to entertain a child who may have never seen a real circus in his or her life. In fact, the books can be better. I remember feeling disappointed the first time I saw a real circus. It was all a bit slow and mundane.
The fascination for reading about the circus doesn’t go away because of a little inconvenience like adulthood. Apart from the non-fiction books that tell us stories about how circus life really worked, every fiction genre has some version of storytelling within a circus or carnival setting.
Mystery and Thriller books and films have used circus settings for decades. Who doesn’t enjoy reading about a spy infiltrating a country through a performing circus, a detective getting locked in a cage with big cats, or a Victorian Mystery with a sleuth working to penetrate the tribal protective society of travelling entertainment?
When it comes to Fantasy or Horror, stories can range from the slightly weird to the evil clown murderer. A fictional Fantasy world is actually quite a fun place to introduce travelling performers of some description. Even Charles Dickens sent his characters in Nicholas Nickleby and in The Old Curiosity Shop on adventures with travelling actor troupes or other travelling entertainments.
The creepy side of things is where you often find carnivals, like in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes or in Stephen King’s Joyland, which is set in a carnival-like amusement park. Twilight Eyes by Dean Koontz is, perhaps, the epitome of evil within a travelling carnival setting. A few notes of off-key calliope music can be very atmospheric in a Horror novel, even without the appearance of an actual carnival.
In real life, there is both good and bad aspects of circus and carnival life. Two very well-known books, Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen and Toby Tyler by James Otis depict much of what was both good and bad about the old time circuses. The important thing, though, is that they make excellent reads.
The only time I haven’t enjoyed a book with a circus or carnival setting has been when a writer doesn’t make the effort to find out the difference and gets it wrong. I read across a lot of genres and have read nearly all the books mentioned or pictured in this article. All of them have been excellent entertainment.
This is what we have to remember when reading these books. They are entertainment. The animals in the circus are no longer part of the modern circus line-up. Most clowns aren’t actually evil, even if they can be scary to some children (and even adults) with their weird make-up. Carnivals aren’t actually run by goblins or undercover vampires.
It’s okay to let your inner child enjoy all the aspects of the circus and know that the animals will be fine, because they’re fictional. We don’t really have to worry about hidden evil in a carnival where the only realistic danger is to your wallet. We can enjoy these stories with all the wonder and horror of a child-like imagination and marvel at the magic that is part of the mystery and character of these forms of travelling entertainment that touch our lives for a short time, and then are gone again.
Have you ever written a circus or carnival into one of your stories? How would such an entertainment fit into your genre?
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