‘The Land of Laughs’ by Jonathan Carroll

I’m only just getting started, but I am already enjoying this column. Reading books from a time before cell phones. When people stopped their cars and jumped into a phone booth to make a call. When they went to libraries to do research. When damned near everything and everyone wasn’t available right at your fingertips. A time when people got up and out of the house to buy books at stores. Before we all (yes, I am guilty as charged) had our faces perpetually locked into electronic pacifiers.

A better time? I like to think so. Some will disagree, claiming that we are armed with information at our fingertips at all times. There may be some truth to that, but I think that all too often real information is drowned in misinformation, distortion, misdirection, propaganda, and outright lies.

It was easier to see a good guy from a bad one, and also a good book from a piece of crap. Sure, I got suckered into reading some crap, but things were clearer in the ’70s and ’80s. Crap was still crap, but it was generally packaged as crap. You’ve all seen those evil children covers and the ones with skeletons doing preposterous things.

I was never much of a fantasy fiction fan. Oh sure, I read Tolkien when I was a kid. In my naivete I, like so many others, proclaimed The Lord of the Rings to be “the best book ever written.” My love affair with fantasy pretty much started and ended with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. After that?

I started The Last Unicorn, but never finished it. T.H. White wasn’t for me. Anne McCaffrey damned sure wasn’t. Stephen R. Donaldson violently turned me off right from the get.

Some SF writers whose work I loved delved into fantasy. Jack Williamson, Clifford D. Simak, Roger Zelazny, Philip Jose Farmer. Fritz Lieber. I read and liked it, but I never counted those type of stories as my favorites of theirs.

Okay, I’ll give you Watership Down. I loved that book, even if I never really enjoyed anything I tried to read by Richard Adams after that. I was deeply impressed by some of the densely literate novels of Robert Nye.

As I entered the ’80s the bookshelves in the SF section were filling with titles by writers like Piers Anthony and Robert Asprin. That’s when I hightailed it to the horror genre, and have never really left since.

There are crossover writers, like Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman. Some of the fiction by Tanith Lee, S.P. Somtow. I enjoy these writers, but the closer they drifted toward fantasy, the more I tended to avoid it. I threw in the towel on Stephen King’s Dark Tower series early.

And the real superstar of fantasy is of course George R.R. Martin. Especially since it became an HBO sensation, Game of Thrones is insanely popular. Me, I miss Martin’s horror work, exemplified in novels like The Armageddon Rag and Fevre Dream.  Come home to horror, George! All is forgiven!

So, yeah, fantasy isn’t my thing at all. I know a lot of people who love reading it, and I know some who write it. Read, write, love what makes you happy.

If I do read something classified as fantasy, it will usually be by someone like Jack Finney. The kind of thing that might get labeled as Magic Realism, if you need subgenres for every little digression.

Which sort of brings me to Jonathan Carroll.

While Carroll has written some things without any supernatural elements, much of what he does features the fantastique sneaking into the realm of everyday life. Magic Realism, Slipstream, Low Fantasy, whatever. It all gets a bit silly to me. Carroll is a storyteller, and he weaves the most insidious of wonders in his writing.

Jonathan Carroll is the kind of author with “Cult Writer” practically splashed upon his forehead. His stories and novels aren’t quite like anything I’ve read by any other writer. His first published novel was The Land of Laughs.

I can only imagine the frustration he had it getting it to the page. It’s the kind of book that editors are likely to love, but feel helpless on how such a book could be marketed.

The Land of Laughs did indeed find a publisher, and excellent reviews and word of mouth spread. The novel has become something of a legend, and it is regarded as a milestone of imaginative fiction.

But is it horror? This is, after all, a horror column, isn’t it?

The Land of Laughs fits firmly and nicely into my idea of what constitutes horror. What’s it about?

Thomas Abbey is the perpetually bewildered son of a late, great Hollywood actor. Think Paul Newman. Unable to escape his father’s shadow, but unwilling to embrace the attention it brings him, Abbey teaches, and finds solace in books. His favorite author is the enigmatic Marshall France. France, now deceased, wrote a string of imaginative children’s books that are treasured by readers everywhere. Fascinated to the point of obsession with France, Abbey and his new lover and collaborator are inspired to travel to the writer’s small hometown to research a biography of the author.

Abbey and his companion are greeted with almost frightening enthusiasm at the town. Marshall France’s daughter, as well as the rest of the town, are eager for him to start his biography. But something is not right. Not by a long shot. Reality seems to be unraveling in the town of Galen. Boston Terriers might be speaking. A boy is killed by a car, and the townspeople are happy about it. And when it appears as though Abbey loses interest in the biography of France, his life might be in danger.

Why are the inhabitants of Galen so intent on the completion of the biography? What secrets are they keeping? Did the town influence France’s writing, or is the other way around?

The Land of Laughs begins with deceptively light prose. It’s breezy and witty. As the novel progresses, it is like the gradual end of the day, as darkness sneaks up.  Tension ratchets, and by the final chapter The Land of Laughs has morphed from a gentile fantasy to a full-fledged horror novel.

Once upon a time, when I began working in horror fiction online discussion, Jonathan Carroll was regularly discussed in the forums. His presence in the genre seems to have slipped away, and I am not sure that many newer readers are aware of how powerful his writing is, or how influential it has been.

For the uninitiated, The Land of Laughs is the perfect place to begin the darkly fantastical journey through the fiction of Jonathan Carroll. Few will be disappointed.

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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