Who is Dr. Lao? Curator, pulp fiction "Chinaman," or the last of the gods? The relentlessly laconic author doesn’t seem to care about these questions one way or another, beyond framing them.

His Circus features the original Apollonius (b/w Golden Ass), Satan, a satyr, Medusa and the Great God Yottle. The people of Abalone, Arizona, where The Circus has landed, are impatient, by and large, with these apparitions — they only want a sideshow.

The book was made into a movie that people seem to have generally disliked, despite Tony Randall’s performance in seven different roles. The Circus of Dr. Lao is back in print, thanks to the University of Nebraska, so you can judge for yourself whether the movie missed the point. "Relentlessly laconic" is a nice way of putting it; the characters are as nonplussed by weirdness as the characters in the works of the great R. A. Lafferty. Lafferty deals with the sort of people who, when confronted with gigantic flying islands tend to get shirty about zoning regulations; Finney’s characters are much the same. Unlike the ever so slightly gonzo Lafferty, however, Finney seems to share his characters’ sense that Medusa turning a patron to stone is no more or less interesting than college kids kicking up a ruckus at the peepshow unless you’re the patron’s husband, and maybe not even then. The citizens of Abalone just want a circus.

Charles Finney was a newspaperman in Tucson, Arizona for thirty years. On the side, he wrote fiction, but either it wasn’t much of a concern or he worked slowly; after two efforts in the 1930s, he stopped for twenty years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he published a bare handful of short fiction in such magazines as Harper’s and the Paris Review. In 1968, he wrote a novella. And, assuming he was a good reporter, that was it for his career as a writer of fictions. His reputation rests entirely on the slim volume that was his first published work, a odd little tale about a circus. The circus is The Circus of Dr. Lao, and it brings some curious characters along to a dusty little town in the desert:

Who is Dr. Lao? Curator, pulp fiction "Chinaman," or the last of the gods? The relentlessly laconic author doesn’t seem to care about these questions one way or another, beyond framing them.

His Circus features the original Apollonius (b/w Golden Ass), Satan, a satyr, Medusa and the Great God Yottle. The people of Abalone, Arizona, where The Circus has landed, are impatient, by and large, with these apparitions — they only want a sideshow.

The book was made into a movie that people seem to have generally disliked, despite Tony Randall’s performance in seven different roles. The Circus of Dr. Lao is back in print, thanks to the University of Nebraska, so you can judge for yourself whether the movie missed the point. "Relentlessly laconic" is a nice way of putting it; the characters are as nonplussed by weirdness as the characters in the works of the great R. A. Lafferty. Lafferty deals with the sort of people who, when confronted with gigantic flying islands tend to get shirty about zoning regulations; Finney’s characters are much the same. Unlike the ever so slightly gonzo Lafferty, however, Finney seems to share his characters’ sense that Medusa turning a patron to stone is no more or less interesting than college kids kicking up a ruckus at the peepshow unless you’re the patron’s husband, and maybe not even then. The citizens of Abalone just want a circus. The Romans had their "bread and circus", but the circus was simply spectacle: gladiatorial games and chariot races. The modern circus is of surprisingly recent vintage, when a man named Philip Astley turned the skills he learned in the British cavalry into a show in London. He added acts and built a roof, and the circus was born. The form proved popular and competitors to Astley’s circus soon sprung up, offering a variety of acts — tumbling, tightrope walking, performing animals, and, of course, every child’s nightmare, the clowns. In the early nineteenth century, Londoner Joseph Grimaldi developed what is basically the modern clown; his name lingers in the language of clowning. The circus made it to America as early as 1797 — George Washington reportedly sold them a horse — but it wasn’t until the advent of the big top in the 1820s and American railroad system that the travelling circus became an American icon.

The acts developed; Jules Leotard invented the trapeze in 1859, and by the 1820s elephants were being exhibited for money in the United States. P.T. Barnum, turned Jumbo the Elephant into a major attraction for his circus while giving English a new word (and Tufts University a new mascot). Jumbo died famous and beloved, a better fate than Black Diamond (executed by firing squad) or Luna Park‘s Topsy (death by electric chair, a bizarre publicity stunt by Thomas Edison) got. But Barnum was good at his job even when he wasn’t cheerfully lying through his teeth; Barnum’s touring "Greatest Show on Earth" came when he was 60 years old, after his successes with the Feejee Mermaid and the Barnum Museum and all the rest. Barnum joined forces with James Bailey a few years before his death, and in 1905 Barnum & Bailey’s circus was acquired by Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.

But there were circuses dotting America, pulling into town on a circus train and parading through town before exhibiting their sideshows (the "monster shows" of the Ringling Bros. were probably freak shows), feats of derring-do made to seem both breathtakingly dangerous and oddly commonplace, and whole families of performers in glittering costumes and speaking their own curious lingo. No wonder people in little towns in from Arkansas to Arizona loved them; according to one historian,

[w]hen Circus Day came and the train rolled into town carrying car after car of exotic animals and tents that were taller and bigger than some buildings in the small communities, the sheer enormity and magical allure of the enterprise often shut down schools and closed a few businesses. People traveled by wagon or train from cities 50 miles away to get a glimpse of the trapeze artists, laugh at the clowns and marvel at the ferocious animals that yielded to a daring trainer’s will.

Despite the occasional disastrous circus train wreck or tent fire, for small towns everthing about a circus was larger then life. Tom Mix and Buffalo Bill Cody (the latter of whom employed Annie Oakley and Wild Bill Hickock) became American icons, but their circuses tapped into something that made everyone bigger.

In The Circus of Dr. Lao, the citizens of Abalone take a day off from normality. They see witches raise Satan. They see a chimera, taken while sleeping in Asia Minor. They see a satyr, alive since the days of Hercules and the Sibyl (Miss Agnes Birdsong, Abalone’s schoolteacher, is much affected). But these things are no more magical to them than seeing the elephants walk down Main Street. And why should they be?

"Well, was that all there was in the parade?" asked Mrs. Rogers.

"That’s all, mother. There weren’t any clowns or elephants or bands or camels or anything."

"Weren’t there any horses?"

"There was a horse with a horn on its head, but it had a funny tail," said Edna.

"Well, it must have been a queer parade," said Mrs. Rogers. "I wish I had seen it."