I received a review copy of this book from Net Galley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. They give me no money, nor do they in any way influence my thoughts – those are 100% my own for better or worse.
Synopsis (from Net Galley):
In 1983, a circus caravan is torn apart by a summer storm, or possibly a meteor shower. The performers are scattered all around the fields outside Peckinpaw. The survivors convene at a local boarding house, but a series of brutal attacks and strange deaths combined with general disagreement among the carnies stand in the way of any and all attempts to rally the group and either set up the show or move on.
The story focuses on Sue, the show’s tattooed man. He is a haunted war veteran somewhere in his middle age, and he’s … troubled… As the story progresses, Sue’s tale weaves through the past and present, making his grip on reality in the present a bit tenuous at times. Are the strange happenings something supernatural, or is there something else going on?
Circus + The Skin is a really interesting book. And I mean that in the nicest way possible. It was not at all what I was expecting. I always try to avoid reader reviews until after I’ve read a book in order to avoid letting someone else’s POV inform my own experience of a story, and I’m particularly glad that I did so here. I was expecting (based on the genre tags on both GoodReads and Net Galley) to read a horror/thriller, but what I got was more of a noir mystery set against a discombobulated carnival backdrop. It was a really lovely, if completely unexpected surprise.
Sue is a wonderful character – he’s got a lot of story, a fair amount of darkness, and a slippery enough grip on reality to really make me love him. I mean, he’s certainly not mad, but he is carrying around the weight of a lot of spiritual unrest. The push and pull of ‘is it supernatural or just the weight of his own guilt’ vibes reminded me of the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House – Sue brings to mind the Crain family for me in that he is similarly haunted by his past. Like the Crains, his own past weighs so heavily on him that the audience (well, me) is left to wonder if some of these crazy happenings aren’t manifestations of guilt – either psychologically or otherwise (like Nell – was that because of supernatural forces, or was the haunting situation merely a manifestation of severe and untreated mental illness?). Have I gone totally off the deep end here? I don’t know, there’s just … something reminiscent of the Crain family here…
But I know now the price for storing shadows. I know how hard they are to clear out, once they’re in.
There it is. That quote. The Crain clan was likewise in the business of storing shadows that they were struggling mightily to clear out.
How did this become a review of a re-imagining of a different book? Sorry. Digression over. Back to this rather wonderful book.
McCleary’s writing is evocative. I never once struggled to see characters or settings. His cast of characters, while fairly large, never fell flat. Everyone who mattered was fleshed out surprisingly well for such a short novel. He mentions in the Afterword that the book partially owes its existence to Ray Bradbury – and I think that shows. Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is the eponymous carnival-horror novel, and I can see some similarities in Sue to Mr. Dark – although those similarities are more to do with his aura of darkness and mystery than anything. If you’ve read Something Wicked then you know – Mr. Dark is fucking scary. Sue is definitely not that, but he’s no innocent either.
This book was a lot of fun. It’s a quick read, but the quality doesn’t suffer for its lack of length. McCleary tells an efficient, well-plotted mystery, and certain aspects of the resolution genuinely surprised me.
Circus + The Skin By Keith McCleary Kraken Press Horror, Mystery, Thriller ISBN: 9789197972529 Published: December 03, 2018 Price: $14.99 USD E-book 168 pages Author's Website: https://www.keithmccleary.com/