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The Circus of Dr. Lao

3.91  ·  Rating Details  ·  714 Ratings  ·  108 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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Aug 23, 2012 Mark rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

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
Aug 18, 2012 Paul Bryant rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels

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
Apr 19, 2012 Jean-marcel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 29, 2015 Kirstin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 29, 2011 Marvin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fantasy
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
Wesley A. Vermillion
Jul 16, 2010 Wesley A. Vermillion rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fantasy
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
Espana Sheriff
Sep 04, 2010 Espana Sheriff rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 29, 2010 Palawa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fantasy, fiction
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.
Apr 12, 2011 Algernon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
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.
Jun 16, 2013 Tony rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-again
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...
Jim Dooley
Jan 26, 2014 Jim Dooley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 17, 2013 Aaron rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 21, 2012 Lynne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 01, 2011 Rose Reid rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: circus
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.
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.
Jan 01, 2016 verbava rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: carnival
історія стара, як урбаністична культура: одного разу в маленьке містечко приїздить мандрівний цирк. його оголошення обіцяє показати речі, досі небачені, і кожен відвідувач скептично вирішує, що його надурять, однак усе одно йде на виставу, чекаючи дива. що ж, цирк доктора лао перевершує всі очікування.
зазвичай у розповідях про таке карнавальне дізнатися, як змінюється маленьке провінційне містечко після циркового візиту, мені мало не цікавіше, ніж познайомитися з тим, що всередині цього цирку ві
Carrie S
Mar 12, 2008 Carrie S rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Awesome movie, too! The books is not as child-friendly.
M.R. Dowsing
Jun 16, 2014 M.R. Dowsing rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 26, 2012 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A highly original tale of a shabby little circus that shows up suddenly in a small town in Arizona. The inhabitants find, to their surprise, that the mythological creatures are real. The mermaid is real, the Hound of the Hedges is real, the Satyr is real, the sea serpent is real. Particularly surprised is the woman who thinks the Medusa is a fake, but not for long, and her husband gets an unusual statue out of the encounter. Some lives are changed, such as that of the English teacher who meets t ...more
Sep 17, 2011 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 22, 2014 Ivan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jason Bradley Thompson
An amazing, unbelievably creative, unbelievably weird book: the direct ancestor of urban-fantasy authors like Neil Gaiman. It's scarred by some period racism in its depiction of Africans (depicted as sexual, nude, exotic, etc.), but it's also written in such a way as to poke fun at the racist attitudes of 1930s Americans, with their prejudices against Chinese, or Russians, or mythological monsters, really, anything 'unknown.'

Truly one of the greatest fantasy stories ever. What's ironic is that t
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
Jun 23, 2016 Fabulantes rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fantasia
"El circo del doctor Lao es un moderno bestiario. Finney toma algunos “monstruos” de leyenda y los convierte en seres más reales, más naturales, que los propios humanos: los habitantes de Abalone suelen ser casi siempre manchas, ecos de una opinión general difundida de forma casi unánime. Así, Finney emplea muchas páginas en reflejar el estupor general que produce el paso de la caravana circense y, en particular, de las discrepancias sobre uno de s
Brian Bess
Feb 21, 2016 Brian Bess rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The carnival of yin/yang

Like many of my generation, I first encountered 'The Circus of Dr. Lao' through the brilliant fantasy film, '7 Faces of Dr. Lao', with the 'seven faces' all being portrayed by Tony Randall. It was a fresh, fun, imaginative wonder. A few years later, when I encountered Ray Bradbury and read his tales of dark carnivals I thought of certain similarities with 'Dr. Lao' and wondered if there was an influence. Shortly thereafter, I wasn't at all surprised to discover that Bradb
John Walsh
Jan 06, 2015 John Walsh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 06, 2014 Cody rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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Charles Grandison Finney, 1905-1984 a grand-grandson of Charles Grandison Finney, 1792-1875.
More about Charles G. Finney...

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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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