The Pilo Traveling Show, Will Elliott (Resurrection/Underland 978-1-63023-008-1, $16, 232pp, trade paperback) September 2015
Like most Americans, I came late to The Pilo Family Circus (reviewed in issue #576), since Will Elliott’s unnerving deep-black comedy, a first novel, appeared in Australia in 2006, won an award, and received two more English-language editions in the following years, but didn’t find a US publisher till Underland released it in 2009. By now, Elliott is a multiple award-winner – author of a trilogy and two further unrelated novels – and with The Pilo Traveling Show he returns to the Circus on his own time. (Publication date, here and elsewhere, 2015.)
Chapter Two sets the scene, not quite a year after the murderous rampage that ended the previous book:
There is work to do, so much work repairing, resurrecting, cleaning, rebuilding. The world needs its distractions and entertainment, after all. It needs its circus…. Yet like something injured it has held off, held off, not yet sure enough of itself to brave the rigors of its trade, troubled by premonitions of its own total doom, troubled that some of them up there [in our human world]… have seen it naked without its glamour to shield their eyes and memories. And it is nervous. Its collapse has left a gap in the world which will be filled sooner or later, by their show… or someone, something else’s.
From this perspective, the circus/freak show/fun fair seems like a sleazier version of the movie-house melodramas Severin deplores: crass entertainment for mindless masses who scarf it down along with their popcorn and candy floss.
But bringing it back after many deaths (and some desertions) among the performers also requires the unholy skills of the Matter Manipulator. With a ghoulish mix of mad science and black magic, he resurrects the clowns: despite names that seem to echo the Seven Dwarves, this group of weirdos is far more deadly, led by a vicious schemer. The current circus-master sends them up to modern Brisbane, in search of both escapees and new players. In alternating chapters Below and Above, the first book’s hero Jamie (once kidnapped and transformed into an auxiliary clown) reappears as an amnesiac who managed to flee the Circus but recalls it mostly in vague nightmares – until he’s seized again, with a housemate and that horny dude’s girlfriend. As costumes and face-paint change that threesome (while other stolen humans try to cope, some doppelgangers join the crew, and older, eerier players undergo their own metamorphoses), the clowns continue to forge covert alliances for ultimate rebellion.
Multiple viewpoints, settings, and storylines never slow The Pilo Traveling Show in its headlong, brutal course. Nonetheless, it finds ways to reflect on humanity’s desperate need for pleasure, fright, and awe: showgirls, monsters, gods.