A circus: A space that contains a spectacle

A circle: A space consecrated by magicians with, usually, a blade of virginal steel and where psychical energies are focused, where different planes of reality meet.

A circle: A symbol for eternity, for timelessness.

Is it any wonder, then, that, cotton candy and clowns aside, a circus evokes so much mystery for the mythically inclined?


This strange mythic quality is embodied by another novel that quietly appeared — reappeared, actually — in the middle of the summer, Charles G. Finney's short novel "The Circus of Dr. Lao" (Bison Books: 154 pp., $14.95 paper).

Finney was an Arizona newspaperman, and "The Circus of Dr. Lao" was his first novel, published in 1935. Calling this book, with its larger-than-usual typeface and layout, a novel seems a bit of a stretch. But as you begin reading it, you find dimension and depth captured with great economy, influenced, no doubt, by Finney's being a journalist accustomed to fitting big ideas into small spaces.

The publisher says the book was influential for Ray Bradbury (and was also later adapted into a 1964 movie), who wrote his own far darker circus story in "Something Wicked This Way Comes"— a graphic novel adaptation by Ron Wimberly appeared this summer (Hill and Wang: 133 pp., $30/$15.95 paper).

Bradbury's and Finney's stories couldn't be more different. Take their openings. The arrival of Bradbury's carnival is full of foreboding (a wind is stirring, storm clouds loom). Finney's is pitiful, pathetic. Though a grand, mysterious advertisement appears in the local newspaper in Abalone, Ariz., what comes down the dusty streets hardly seems to measure up. Or does it? A faltering figure, described as a "little old Chinaman," leads a pathetic, rickety procession of three wagons.

And yet. And yet.

The townspeople's tongues are set to wagging — more than they've probably done in a long time —over what they see. Correction: what they think they see. Is that a bear in one of the wagons? Or is it a man? Or a Russian? What about the wagon driver: is he just some poor old fellow dressed in a costume with goat horns on his head or is he a "real honest-to-god satyr driving a gold-plated mule down the main drag of a hick town?" (Note: "gold-plated mule"—see Apuleius, "The Golden Ass.")

In spite of their skepticism, in spite of their unwillingness to embrace the mystery of this circus, the townspeople are swept away. Rather than focus on one particular character, Finney follows different townspeople, recording their experiences with Dr. Lao's circus.

Lonely Agnes Birdsong is nearly seduced by the wagon-driving satyr; the Rogers family and two policemen enter a tent to view a real Medusa (well, her reflection), which leads to this aside by the good doctor: "It is very distressing for us always to have one or two customers turned to stone at every performance, besides being very difficult to explain to the police." A man who's been chipped away by illness and accidents — he wears prosthetic devices, false teeth, has metal plates in his head — finds unexpected sympathy in the chimera, a beast whose body also consists of mis-matched parts.

And then there's the hilarious experience of widowed Mrs. Howard T. Cassan. She hears nothing encouraging from the fortuneteller, Apollonius of Tyana. He doles out a fierce, bleak picture of her future that the stubborn lady refuses to accept. When he tells her to imagine "an old cornstalk turning brown, drying, but refusing to fall over…. That is you," her reaction is: "Well, I must say, you are the strangest fortuneteller I ever visited."

She loves his candor so much, in fact, that she's attracted to him, causing Apollonius to tell her: "Madam, I am nearly two thousand years old, and all that time I have been a bachelor. It is too late to start over again." The widow Mrs. Howard T. Cassan, however, won't take "no" for an answer.

Finney's "The Circus of Dr. Lao" is a glorious little book about the way that classical myths can gild our bland, tedious lives. We never really learn why this circus stops in Abalone rather than New York City or Chicago. My guess is that Finney wanted to show how myth, "that weird netherworld of unbiological beings," can arrive in even the most forgotten corners. You don't need to be near the centers of things to have interesting experiences, and that should give hope to most of us.

The Siren's Call appears monthly at latimes.com/books