Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Finney, Charles G

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(1905-1984) US newspaperman and writer remembered mainly for his first novel, The Circus of Dr Lao (1935), famously illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff (1899-1965) in a hard-edged surreal mode which perfectly captured the hard impersonal clarity of the tale itself. In writing the story, CGF was clearly influenced by his military service (he had served 1927-1930 in China). To Abalone, Arizona, sometime early in the 20th century, comes Dr Lao's Circus, announced beforehand by a poster claiming that visitors will be able to see a chimera, Medusa, Merlin, a Mermaid, Pan, the Loch Ness Monster, a sphinx, a Unicorn and a Werewolf. The three caravans arrive, seemingly from nowhere, and disgorge far more than they seem capable of containing. The circus begins; discords soon mount between the small-town Abalonians and the creatures on display. Dr Lao himself is a Trickster, and seems immortal, though the denizens of his circus show the signs of Thinning natural to creatures of Myth locked into a secular world. Soon the show turns into a black Revel, and before the night is out 11 humans are dead. The climax – the Human Sacrifice of a virgin (> Virginity) to the ancient God of a Lost Land – passes quickly, the promise that Lao's libidinously evocative creatures will liberate Arizona fades, and the circus leaves. The movie version – 7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964) – introduces new protagonists and a plot with a more "congenial" ending, and allows the inference that the denizens of the circus may be projections of Dr Lao's own being.

The book has been deeply influential on writers like Ray Bradbury, whose small towns owe much to Dr Lao, and Peter S Beagle, whose circus in The Last Unicorn (1968) reads as a direct homage. CGF was perhaps the first US writer to depict the Marvellous and the Uncanny in terms so mercilessly and hauntingly deadpan.

CGF's later work is of less interest. In The Unholy City (1937) a resident of Abalone crashlands in Asia, and is guided through mysterious Heilar-Wey where surreal ways of living expose themselves. Some of the stories in The Ghosts of Manacle (coll 1964) are fantasy, including in particular "The Life and Death of a Western Gladiator", in which a Serpent narrates its own demise. The Magician Out of Manchuria (in The Unholy City, coll 1968; 1976 UK) is an intermittently graceful exercise in Chinoiserie. [JC]

Charles Grandison Finney


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.