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  • Yehoshua Paul

1935 - The Circus of Dr. Lao

1935. The big things happening are that Hitler is openly violating the Versailles treaty and rearming Germany. He reestablishes the Luftwaffe, and introduces conscription to the Wehrmacht. Hitler also passes the Nuremberg laws, stripping the citizenship from all of Germany’s Jews, and banning marriage and intercourse between Germans and Jews. In the United States, the Dust Bowl, a period of severe dust storms, hits several states, and forces tens of thousands of people to abandon their farm. At the same time, two new major New Deal programs are launched: the Works Progress Administration, which offers work to millions of Americans, and Social Security, which enables them to save up for old age. Other major world news includes Italy invading Ethiopia, and the Chinese government conceding military control of North-eastern China to Japan.

The smaller things happening are that wine is now in boxes, beer is in cans and Alcoholics Anonymous is founded. Splinter free toilet paper is invented along with deodorant for men, – bringing relief to many. Wormholes are theorized by Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen. And, Orson Welles pranks radio listeners into believing that Martians are landing.

And in animal related news, 20 gerbils, the ancestors of all the gerbils currently populating North America, are imported to the United States from Mongolia for research purposes. The faithful Japanese Akita dog, Hachiko, passes away on the same spot where he waited for his dead owner for the past nine years. In Moscow, the US ambassador manages to top 1934’s seal incident by hosting a Spring Festival featuring unhousebroken drunk baby bears, and hundreds of rare zebra finches who escaped their aviary. And on August 3, a circus of mythical beasts and legendary figures visits the town of Abalone, Arizona, inspiring Charles G. Finney to write The Circus of Dr. Lao.

Charles Grandison Finney (1905-1984) was an American news editor and fantasy novelist, and great grandson of the evangelist Charles G. Finney. Due to the fact that he had a famous ancestor with the same name who was more influential and has more fans, I was unable to dig up much biographical information on Finney, the author. What I can tell you is that he was born in Sedalia, Missouri and that he served in China with the US army 15th Infantry regiment (E Company) from 1927 to 1929. Afterwards, he worked as an editor for the Arizona Daily Star for 40 years. Finney wrote three novels: The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935), The Unholy City (1937), and The Magician out of Manchuria (1968). He also wrote two collections of short stories, and a book of memoirs The Old China Hands (1961), about his time as a soldier in China; considering the lack of material on Finney, I am thinking about ordering the book and writing something on the author (after #seferhaomer).


The Circus of Dr. Lao is Finney’s most famous work. It won a National Book Award: the most original book of 1935. The book is set in the ordinary backwater town of Abalone, Arizona, one of countless towns suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. One day an advertisement appears on page five of the Abalone Morning Tribune, which is eight columns wide and twenty one inches long, and tells about a circus that will be visiting Abalone that day. The circus will feature the most beautiful women in the world of any era: “though the whole race of man were bred for feminine beauty as the whole race of Jersey cattle is bred for butterfat, even then lovelier women could not be produced”. The wild animals on display would be no less sensational – fierce beasts, cunning serpents and “hybrids strange beyond all nightmares of fantasy. There would be various sideshows including a fortune teller who did not forecast anything of international or political nature because it was unethical. And for men only (over twenty-one, married men preferred), there would be an educational peepshow, carefully created from erotic dramas and dreams of long dead periods. The main circus performance would take place in the big tent and would culminate with a scene from the long dead city of Woldercan, in which a virgin would be slain to satisfy the long dead god Yottle. Admission was 10c for the sideshows, 25c for the main performance, and 50c for the peepshow. Children in arms were free.

The curiosity of Abalone’s townspeople was aroused, and many of them gathered to see the circus parade, which turned out to be less than expected. There were only three wagons. The first displayed a big coiled snake (a sea serpent) and was pulled by a horse with a single horn, and there was some debate whether the horn was real or glued on. The second wagon displayed a bear (or was it a man?), and was pulled by a sphinx. The third wagon displayed a green dog (the hound of hedges), and was pulled by a yellow donkey. However, since the rates were affordable, and the circus sounded like a family experience, and there was a peepshow, many decide to give it a visit, which is what I recommend you do with this book.

The capture of the hound of hedges

The Circus of Dr. Lao is one of those works of genius that is hard to describe, even harder to categorize, but is most definitely a must read. There is philosophy, satire, sarcasm, even moments of poignancy, mixed in with a very heavy dose of humor, which sometimes devolves into slapstick. Everyday Americans are introduced to wonders and magic, and we the readers get to sit back and enjoy their very ordinary reactions because as Dr. Lao explains, there are “things in the world, not even the experience of a whole life spent in Abalone, Arizona could conceive of”. There is a werewolf who disappoints her all-male audience by transforming into an old woman. There is a 2,300 year old satyr who is about to seduce a school teacher when Dr. Lao enters the tent and proceeds to give a detailed lecture on its origins and how it was captured. Apollonius of Tyana, offers to turn wine into water for a family of five, but the father requests the reverse. Apollonius then proceeds to create a two headed turtle and revive a dead man to the family’s entertainment. At the end of the book, there is a detailed catalog listing every single male character, female character, child character, animal god and goddess, city, statuette, figurine, icon, artifact, idol, foodstuff, and unresolved questions and contradictions (which remain unresolved – it’s just a list). All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and there is a good reason why many consider it to be one of the most influential fantasy books every written.

The Omer today is kingship in grandeur, two attributes this book inverts. Doctor Lao’s circus is a kingdom containing some amazing wonders, yet their magic is made mundane, and their grandness is humbled. There are no mysteries here that Doctor Lao can’t explain (if he so chooses). Ever wonder what medusa’s hair eats or which species of snake grow from her head? The answers are as commonplace as the creature is not. However, even though all the displays and exhibits in Dr. Lao’s kingdom are treated as commonplace occurrences (the exact opposite of how they are advertised), the reality behind them is far from common. One cannot come in touch with the fantastic, and walk away unscathed. The people of Abalone are going to be discussing the circus for a long time to come, and their outlook on life is going to change as a result of this encounter. Perhaps the true grandness of the book is not the circus itself, but how it reshapes are expectations of the world? Don’t know, but this is something I am going to continue pondering for a while yet.

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