Friday, September 27, 2013

Book Review: The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott

The Pilo Family Circus 

Written by: Will Elliott

Published: 2009

Synopsis: "You have two days to pass your audition. You better pass it, feller. You’re joining the circus. Ain’t that the best news you ever got?” Delivered by a trio of psychotic clowns, this ultimatum plunges Jamie into the horrific alternate universe that is the centuries-old Pilo Family Circus, a borderline world between Hell and Earth from which humankind’s greatest tragedies have been perpetrated. Yet in this place—peopled by the gruesome, grotesque, and monstrous—where violence and savagery are the norm, Jamie finds that his worst enemy is himself. When he applies the white face paint, he is transformed into JJ, the most vicious clown of all. And JJ wants Jamie dead!

Challenges:  RIP VIII

“The classic definition of slapstick runs along the line of, "Funny is someone else ramming his face repeatedly into a brick wall.”

When I decided to take part in RIP VIII I knew it was the perfect opportunity to finally read The Pilo Family Circus. Tom had bought it a few years ago and had raved about it, but for whatever reason it continued to sit unread on my shelf. Maybe it was the clowns thing, for some strange reason I've always found clowns terrifying.

Oh right, that's why.

So anyway, when RIP VIII was announced I immediately started this book so that I couldn't pass over it yet again. And while I liked it, I didn't like it for the reasons I thought I'd like it and it wasn't nearly the terrifying clown nightmare I'd been expecting.

But first a note about the author Will Elliott. Elliott is from my adopted home city Brisbane, so there's a certain level of squee for me reading this since I know the streets he's talking about and I can work out which hotel or club he's mocking based on the hints he gives which is awesome because I normally haven't been to the places in books I read. At the time of writing this book, Elliott had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia and I think that adds a fascinating level to the novel. He's said that the book is in no way autobiographical, but considering the crux of the story is a young Brisbane male who "shares" his body and mind with a psychotic clown and has to try and find a way to extricate himself from the situation - I think it's safe to say that his own experiences aren't entirely divorced from the novel.

So if you read the synopsis up yonder, it seems like it has all the ingredients for a terrifying clown-filled horror novel that will have you literally shaking in your boots. It's actually a lot more of an absurdist dark comedy that plays with horror and thriller tropes than anything truly terrifying. And I actually think this played out a lot better than anything I expected to read. The real beauty of this novel is that so much is written matter-of-factly, "oh clowns wandering the streets? We are in New Farm afterall, no big deal" that it's only when you put it down to take a break or eat dinner that you realise how bat-shit crazy it actually is. The majority of the novel takes place in a circus that exists in some metaphysical space between Earth and Hell, where centuries-old circus folk put on shows for "tricks" (people on earth who wander into this show from an earth-bound circus or fair) because that's their job. Yes they're also doing it to collect the tricks' souls, but that's not nearly as important as putting on a Good Show. Add to this the co-owner of the circus, Kurt Pilo, who looks wolfish and eats teeth as snacks, one of the clowns is engaged to a fern, there's a yeti that eats glass which makes him sad, souls can grant wishes and murders are a regular occurrence. And while writing all of this makes me feel like I'm stuck in some kind of fun-house mirror room, in the book is just is. It's a circus that has something to do with Lovecraftian demon creatures, so of course things are crazy. Of course, everyone tries to kill each other. Of course the clown face paint transforms Jamie into the demonic JJ the Clown. Of course, there's a character called fishboy who is just lovely. Of Course, the circus is somehow responsible for WWII. It all just makes complete sense while you're caught up in the narrative, it's only back in the real world that the images start to seem warped and twisted.

While I say this book is more of a dark comedy, there are still instances of horror and suspense, so if you're horror-wary maybe don't run to your library for this book too quickly. The opening scenes that are set in Brisbane, where Jamie goes from hotel concierge to unwitting clown recruit, are brutal and tense. After picking up a bag of mysterious crystals that the clowns dropped (some kind of drugs, Jamie supposes), Jamie's house is destroyed, his housemate is kidnapped, he's poisoned and he sees the clowns in the basement of his hotel with a lit match preparing to blow the whole thing up. And this is only the first 20 or so pages. There are two more returns made to this above-world in the novel, and in both of these scenes the grotesquery and horror that seemed so normal in the circus was thrown into sharp relief. Will Elliott has a pretty sick and sinister underside, and considering this was his debut novel and he was in his early 20s when writing it, it's damn impressive how well he manages to accomplish all of this.

So if you're after a Halloween read that won't continue to haunt you post-Halloween, then I wholeheartedly recommend you take a closer look at this one from Will Elliott. Entertaining and well written with brief moments of pure horror, The Pilo Family Circus is still more likely to make you laugh than run for the bedcovers.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...