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The Circus of Dr. Lao

3.95 of 5 stars 3.95  ·  rating details  ·  604 ratings  ·  92 reviews
Filmed as the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao
The novel is set in the fictional town of Abalone, AZ, the inhabitants of which epitomize ordinary Americans as they are simultaneously backhandedly celebrated & lovingly pilloried for their emergent reactions to the wonders of magic & of everyday life. A circus owned by a Chinaman named Dr Lao pulls into town one day, carrying legen
Hardcover, 155 pages
Published 1946 by Ben Abramson (first published 1935)
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As if in coda to my completion, a painter brought into my folks' decorating store a dead hummingbird he found in the back of his van. He brought it forward like an acolyte bearing the thin weight of his aged master, forward toward a raised dais, laying it down, then prostrating himself in supplication. The painter said to me, lying the stiff, inert carcass upon my desk, "I thought you could give it a good burial. I...I...I just don't know how it
Paul Bryant

This strange slender deadpan novel (I think Charles Finney is the first incarnation of Kurt Vonnegut) from 1935 charmed me half to death when I first read it years ago. And it pretty nearly did it again just now. As the years rolled by I think it's got even stranger. For one thing, for a silly fantasy about a circus full of the world's most mythical beings (a sphinx, a chimera, a sea serpent, a mermaid, a werewolf, a hound of the hedges, whatever that is, along with Appolonius of Tyana, a magici
A strange tale of a circus that comes to a quiet depression era town. The story itself is kind of fun in a magical realist sort of way, but where the author really shines is when he steps out of the story telling to give pretty scathing critiques of society and progress. Sort of reads like Kurt Vonnegut at times, especially in the glossary defining all the characters and inconsistencies in the book. Good stuff (although one reviewer is mistaken that his is Charles Finney's only book. A very quic ...more
A book quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It concerns the visit of Dr Lao’s circus to a small Midwestern town during the Depression. This is a very unconventional circus. It’s a collection of mythological creatures, but not everyone who sees them can agree about what they are. There’s really no plot at all, the book merely deals with the effects that Dr Lao’s circus has on the various people who see it. It’s a kind of fable, with a definite touch of surrealism to it. The early 1960s movi ...more
This is a truly extraordinary book. it packs into its short length more commentary on human nature in both its sad and wonderful aspects than many authors would struggle to depict through vast volumes of work. I believe that in a just world this book would be considered among the paragons of American letters, right up there with free-thinking luminaries like Mark Twain, who Charles Finney indeed often calls to my mind while reading The Circus of Dr. Lao. The whole story takes place in a day and, ...more
I have a fondness for the people of the sleepy little town of Abalone, Arizona. I too live in a small desert town. It's not in Arizona but it is a stone's throw away on the other side of the Colorado River. I wouldn't call it sleepy since it is on the I-10, one of the busiest interstates in the nation. Yet it does occasionally seem like it is on the verge of lapsing into a coma. We even have a circus that comes into town twice a year. It has a not-so-big-top tent, an asthmatic ringmaster and an ...more
What an odd little book! The Circus of Dr Lao is... well...odd, surreal, humorous, jarring, unsettling, magical and bizarre. It deserves to be more than an 'obscure classic'.
The book starts out strange and just gets stranger. There's not much to the story, a circus comes to the sleepy town of Abalone, Arizona and the townsfolk seem unimpressed but they've got nothing better to do, so they go.
There is a scene in which a lady has her fortune told. It's so brilliant and brutal. Wow! Shirley Jackso
Wesley A. Vermillion
I try to read this book every couple of years. After the first time I read it Charles G. Finney was catapulted to my favorite writer.
Each time I read it, I experience it differently. The first time I read it I thought the world was a cynical place full of hate and misery, and that humans are horrible people. The second time I read it I felt that the world was mysterious and strange, and I felt that most people don't realize this.
I am not sure how Charles G. Finney wanted to make people feel wh
Finney's book is unsettling. You're given sound-bites of dialogue and gain some insight into characters, but they often don't react as you'd expect. The people of Abalone have a 'whatever' kind of attitude to the arrival of Dr Lao's fantastic circus of mythological beasts, and throughout the story I could see many parallels to our desensitized and blinkered culture. The illustrations are bizarre but in harmonizes with the plot. It is a funny little book and somehow gets under your skin.
A fun movie but a down-right oddball book - the paperback equivalent of an "enigmatic stranger" - its a social commentary, its a comedy, it's stream of conciousness - and it ends with a big list of questions that remain unanswered.

More to discover upon each re-read.

Oh - and what's it all about? Well, a circus comes to a small, US town...
Espana Sheriff
One of the most interesting things about this book is that with the exception of some of the outdated racial language (not the ones in the dialogue, but some of the narration) the prose and language is shockingly modern. If I had picked the book up blind I could have believed it was from the Sixties, or Nineties, or even from a new slipstream/modern fantasy type author.

If you come to this book after watching the movie, be aware it is more cynical, and a bit darked. It is also less plot driven. N
Saw this as a movie when I was a kid- now as an adult I also enjoyed the book. At only 150 pages it is quick, but included are many of the run-of-the-mill type of folks you all know. A bonus is a healthy dose of mythology both traditional and freshly brewed. Written in 1935 it reflects much of that era, but timeless in many ways, as humans never change.
Rose Reid
I really enjoyed this book. I find it incredible that it was written so long ago because the sensibility is very current. The use of language was over the top and fantastic. I found myself uncomfortable with some of the racist content but of course in the thirties it would not have jarred anyone. I would love to see this book as a graphic novel.
great tragicomedy. it is written before, but it reminded me strongly of the athmosphere from the movies of Federico Fellini: the parade of grotesque characters, the festival of fools setting, the humor and the sharpness of observation for humain foibles. A short , concentrated narrative, alternatively humorous, subversive, scary or lyrical.
Kate Jonez
This is an odd little book that I wasn't sure I liked just after I read it. Some parts are painfully of its time. (1940's) But the circus imagery and disturbing carnavalesque situations always seem to pop in to my head when I'm writing. A good book is one you think about later. This qualifies.
Carrie S
Awesome movie, too! The books is not as child-friendly.
This is a great reissue by Bison Books.

First published in 1935, The Circus of Dr. Lao is a marvel: or as John Marco so rightly puts it in his introduction, ‘an obscure classic’. (page xvii)

Though Charles Finney published other novels and stories, this (his first) is perhaps his most famous, though even this is not all that well known. Like many others, I suspect, I know it personally through The 7 Faces of Doctor Lao, the George Pal movie of 1964 starring Tony Randall in the titular multitude of
A strange little story for sure, about a circus that arrives in a sleepy Arizona town only to turn out to be packed full of real mythological creatures - a chimera, a satyr, a werewolf, a mermaid, etc. - though what makes the story strange is not the circus itself but the townspeople's disinterest in these impossibilities. They come expecting a "real" circus, are disappointed when it doesn't meet their expectations, and most leave complaining.

The novel is very short, just over 100 pages (with i
WTF was that all about? I thought this was going to be scary or macabre but what I got was satire. This is more Sinclair Lewis (reminded me of “Main Street” in the way it skewered the right and proper townsfolk). However, it was never actually humorous either. There is some striking prose, and a great use of metaphor. The writer is gifted with an acerbic and lacerating wit. Many individual elements are brilliant, but mixed together they fail to coalesce and the end result read like a hodgepodge ...more
A perfect example of crystal clear and exciting prose fronting extraordinarily opaque meaning. You could easily just enjoy this as a collection of weird and amusing non-sequitur encounters. There is much more here though. You can dig and discover a deft commentary on racism and possibly imperialism (I think that’s one of the subjects Finney is spreading open, but again, it’s not entirely clear). I have never read anything so ahead of its time, both in style and subject matter. The method in whic ...more
F.X. Altomare
An excellent and greatly under appreciated work of imaginative fiction from the '30s. The motley crew of characters in Dr Lao's circus are truly unforgettable, whether it's a sea serpent who falls in love with a mermaid, a disgruntled chimera, or the surreal Dr Lao himself--not to mention the congeries of citizens from Abalone, AZ. Finney also gives us some of the best locally colored dialogue you're likely to find, both for its candor and its precision. A downright hilarious, terrifying, profou ...more
John Walsh
I've been reading about this book for decades and finally got to it. It's one of those books that's been on the periphery, a classic that was recommended by writers I respect. So after all this time, it should have been a let-down.


It wasn't, but it was a different kind of fantasy novel than I'd expected. Ray Bradbury praised it, and his SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES was influenced by it. The Bradbury has a much more suspenseful plot. LAO is more like a series of connected
Somewhat mixed feelings about this book. I became interested due to the film with Tony Randall, which keeps the book's dark humor while adding on a layer of optimism and sentimentality. However, this layer is completely absent from the book. Instead, one feels the palpable cynicism and hatred for humanity and God of a military and newspaper man who obviously witnessed more than his fair share of suffering and inhumanity.

The cynicism does not always feel unwarranted, nor does the bitter but humor
M.R. Dowsing
This is one of those books that's so entirely unlike anything else (especially anything else that was around in the 1930s) that it's something of an anomaly - appropriate, as it happens, as the titular circus itself is full of freaks thrown up by mythological history. It's spectacularly well-written - Finney has a formidable vocabulary but, most of all, it's really, really mental. There's barely any plot to speak of - oddball circus arrives in unremarkable midwestern town, exhibits are living cr ...more
In the depression of 1935 a circus rolls into Abalone, Arizona offering a chance to escape the dry dust with some glitter and fantasy. But beneath the shabby sideshow banners wait the real creatures of myth. How each citizen perceives the creatures in the sideshow reveals the nature of both man and mythic beast. All is related with acid wit in a running commentary of social sarcasm yet beneath all a poignancy that hurts.
I guess I never read this book. I thought I had. I remember the part about the werewolf. But I don't remember anything else I have read so far. I must be getting senile.
It's way better than I remember it from when I thought I read it almost thirty years ago. I like how some of the descriptions in the book are quoted word-for-word or image-for-image. Some of the voices even seem the same.

Finished. Not a bad book. But the 1964 movie, "The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao" was better. The best bits of the bo
Not recommended! If you want poetic scifi, get thee to Bradbury. If you want mind bending headscratching literature, go for Chesterton`s The Man who was Thursday. Or that disturbing wacky dream, The Third Policeman. Or read some of that poetic prose by LeGuin. Just skip this. There is far too much stuff out there that does this better.
I also hit on a major peeve of mine, which I can try to explain...i hate it when an author sets out to be satirical, for instance, and does so by recreating the th
Yes, and amen to all the glowing reviews. It was one of two books that followed me in my wandering for years. Both got read and reread till the spines cracked and they were held together with tape and rubber bands. I never thought to look to see if there was another book by Finney. For a long time I thought it was written by Frederick Brown.
Jim Dooley
As a child, oh so many years ago, I can remember being entranced by a delightful fantasy film called, THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO. This is the book, written some 30-years earlier, that inspired it.

I can honestly say that I've never read another book quite like THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO. It doesn't have a storyline as much as it is an OpEd reporting of a highly unusual series of strange and amazing events. That alone would likely have a negative influence on my enjoyment, and yet that approach made me fee
I'm still trying to decide what I think about this book. It was an entertaining read -- imaginative, rich, and full of wry humor. It's probably best understood as a commentary on small-town America, and that's where the problem lies. The book is very much a product of its times; the small-town America of the 1930s has given way to other variations of middle-America. So while some of the commentary still applies, much of it is dated.

I would be the last to argue that great stories must be timeless
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Charles Grandison Finney, 1905-1984 a grand-grandson of Charles Grandison Finney, 1792-1875.
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“I was like you once, long time ago. I believed in the dignity of man. Decency. Humanity. But I was lucky. I found out the truth early, boy.

And what is the truth, Stark?

It's all very simple. There's no such thing as the dignity of man. Man is a base, pathetic and vulgar animal.”
“Tomorrow will be like today, and the day after tomorrow will be like day before yesterday," said Apollonius. "I see your remaining days each as quiet, tedious collections of hours. You will not travel anywhere. You will think no new thoughts. You will experience no new passions. Older you will become but not wiser. Stiffer but not more dignified. Childless you are, and childless you shall remain. Of that suppleness you once commanded in your youth, of that strange simplicity which once attracted a few men to you, neither endures, nor shall you recapture any of them anymore. People will talk to you and visit with you out of sentiment or pity, not because you have anything to offer them. Have you ever seen an old cornstalk turning brown, dying, but refusing to fall over, upon which stray birds alight now and then, hardly remarking what it is they perch on? That is you. I cannot fathom your place in life's economy. A living thing should either create or destroy according to its capacity and caprice, but you, you do neither. You only live on dreaming of the nice things you would like to have happen to you but which never happen; and you wonder vaguely why the young lives about you which you occasionally chide for a fancied impropriety never listen to you and seem to flee at your approach. When you die you will be buried and forgotten and that is all. The morticians will enclose you in a worm-proof casket, thus sealing even unto eternity the clay of your uselessness. And for all the good or evil, creation or destruction, that your living might have accomplished, you might just as well has never lived at all. I cannot see the purpose in such a life. I can see in it only vulgar, shocking waste.” 4 likes
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