Depending on your perspective, a carnival or a circus can generate a host of pleasant or not-so-pleasant associations. You may have been thrilled by lions and elephants performing tricks, riding the Ferris wheel and Tilt-A-Whirl, or even eating popcorn and hotdogs. Or perhaps you mainly associate carnivals and circuses with less pleasant things… like creepy clowns, freak shows, spooky fortune-tellers, and carnies. (No offense to the people that make carnivals possible!)
A newly released anthology, Nightmare Carnival, tends to present carnivals and circuses from this darker end of the scale. This new collection of dark fantasy and horror is edited by the inestimable Ellen Datlow, editor of scores of genre anthologies and the winner of many, many awards, including the Hugo, the Bram Stoker, the Shirley Jackson, and most recently the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. Datlow continues to show her impeccable ability for spotting good and chilling stories with Nightmare Carnival.
I’m a huge fan of Datlow’s horror anthologies. I raved about her latest Year’s Best Horror volume just a few months ago at Black Gate. Some of her efforts are better than others, and Nightmare Carnival is definitely one of Datlow’s better anthologies. As usual, she has corralled an impressive list of authors, as well as a few lesser known (at least to me). I’ll discuss a few of the best stories here.
I’m not familiar with N. Lee Wood, but her story “Scapegoats,” the leadoff story, was excellent. It is mainly told from the perspective of Mae, “The Amazing Lobster Woman,” part of the World Famous Bishop Brothers Traveling Carnival. Through Mae, we become acquainted with the various characters of this train-traveling carnival/circus, particularly a gentle elephant named Madelaine. The story focuses upon the carnival’s arrival in a small town, where an unjust incident involving Madelaine ends with a local man’s death, and the unfair consequences for the carnival. I won’t spoil the ending, but the title should give you some idea. And let me say that the ‘scapegoat’ scene is fairly traumatic. However, the ending offers something of a just desert, at least by some moral compasses.
I’ve raved a bit about Priya Sharma before. Her story, “The Anatomist’s Mnemonic,” in Datlow’s most recent Year’s Best Horror was brutal, but very well-written. Her story here, “The Firebrand,” is about a fire act in a circus that ends tragically… and mysteriously. The story revolves around a love triangle, and in some ways it’s just a murder mystery and soap opera rolled into one. But Sharma’s characters and dialogue really suck you in. “The Firebrand” wasn’t exactly horror, but a very intriguing thriller.
Jeffrey Ford’s “Hibbler’s Minions” is something of a monster story centered about a flea circus. The story begins with a farmer selling a strange beast to a traveling circus that hopes it will be a popular, money-making attraction. Unfortunately, the creature dies soon after it is purchased — but all is not lost. The strange creature seems to have a few fleas that end up becoming the most amazing flea circus ever. A circus hand named Hibbler trains them and soon his act becomes the main money-making stars of the circus. However, several of the animals in the circus begin to mysteriously die… followed by several human deaths as well. Hibbler’s fleas end up being much more than expected.
Genevieve Valentine’s “The Lion Cage” is a story about two inscrutable circus felines that seem to have a power or effect upon any who spend too much time near them — or even look at them too long. I found this story very creepy, and the tension mounted throughout. However, I was a bit confused by the denouement. I re-read it several times and am still uncertain exactly what happened. Other than that, this story brings a very effective scare.
Nathan Ballingrud is quickly rising toward the top of my list of favorite weird authors. I was more than wowed by his first collection, North American Lake Monsters, But his story here, “Skullpocket,” was completely unlike anything of his I’ve read thus far. If you’ve seen The Nightmare Before Christmas or Beetlejuice, those movies will give you something of the Tim Burton-like feel of “Skullpocket.” The story’s protagonist is one Jonathan Wormcake, the Gentleman Corpse of Hob’s Landing, and the story tells how Wormcake came to be, the history of his town and their long-running festival, and Wormcake’s long lost love. This is an absolutely amazing story. It offers humor, sadness, and sheer creepiness throughout, and at just the right beats — in my opinion, a very hard combination to pull off. And Ballingrud succeeds in doing with a horror ending something I’ve never seen before: “Skullpocket” ends on both a dismal nihilistic note and a positive hopeful note as well. That description sounds incredibly contradictory — but Ballingrud pulls it off superbly. I highly recommend this anthology for “Skullpocket” alone.
If that wasn’t enough gushing, let me add that I think there was even a better story in Nightmare Carnival: Stephen Graham Jones’s “The Darkest Part.” When a short horror story starts off with the line “All we wanted to do was kill a clown,” you know you’re in for a wild ride. Stephen Graham Jones is an incredibly capable horror writer. I highly recommend his 2010 collection The Ones that Got Away, especially “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit.” Jones is a gritty, hard-hitting writer and “The Darkest Part” is no exception. This story is unsettling on several levels and though I thought I knew where the ending was going, Jones completely surprised me. It really plays on the typical fear-of-clowns trope, without becoming clichéd or predictable. In addition, it’s rare for me to get a chill from a horror story, but “The Darkest Part” is one of those extremely disturbing and scary tales — very effective!
That’s just the cream of the crop of Nightmare Carnival. There are other amazing stories within this Datlowian anthology, by stars such as Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn, Nick Mamatas, and Joel Lane. This is an outstanding horror and dark fantasy anthology. I cannot recommend it enough.
Nightmare Carnival was published by Dark Horse Books on October 7, 2014. It contains 16 stories and comes in at 375 pages. It retails for $19.99 in paperback and $9.99 for the digital edition.