Sunday, August 29, 2010
Sideshow by William Ollie (Dark Regions Press, 2010)
If you write a book in which a mysterious carnival appears on the outskirts of town in October, and in which a pair of young boys square off against a sinister proprietor, then the inevitable comparison will be to Something Wicked This Way Comes. William Ollie (in a post on his blog) has asserted that his book was not written in homage to Ray Bradbury's classic novel, and he even claims that Something Wicked was far from his thoughts when composing Sideshow because he hadn't read it in many years, but I suspect that's just the anxiety of influence talking. Still, there are some prominent differences that should be pointed out: Ollie's novel exhibits a much more adult sensibility, as signaled early on in a prologue scene involving a naked cooch dancer and a lit cigar. Profanity abounds (various characters have a habit of starting sentences with "The fuck..."), and the book features explicit scenes of rape and murder. Diverging from Bradbury's dark fantasy, Ollie has written an out-and-out horror novel.
In contrast to Bradbury, Ollie also spends more time in the novel within his respective carnival, and these scenes represent the strongest part of Sideshow. Hannibal Cobb's Kansas City Carnival is rigged worse than the most dishonest game of chance, masking squalor and danger with the illusion of modern wonder. Deluded fairgoers end up the victims of foul play, and often find themselves transformed into the latest acts in the titular sideshow. There's a motive for all this mayhem, though. Cobb's carnival, which has not arrived accidentally in Pottsboro, South Carolina, is on an unholy mission of retribution.
Sideshow is not a flawless piece of writing. The narrative loses its momentum at times, perhaps due in part to the author's penchant for delving into the characters' inner monologues (as they stop to think questions and ponder the strangeness they've witnessed). Ollie also has a tendency to recount events and repeat details (in this reader's estimation, too much ado is made of the top-hat-shaped black cloud hanging overhead). Nonetheless, the novel offers some vibrant imagery (as reflected by M. Wayne Miller's fabulous cover art) and builds to a blood-soaked climax. Sideshow ultimately does not measure up to its Bradburian precursor (not that it it would be fair to expect it to), but it's a novel that avid fans of the dark-carnival subgenre will no doubt enjoy.