The traveling carnival is a leftover of a bygone era, a curiosity lurking on the outskirts of town. It is a place of contradictions — the bright lights mask the peeling paint; a carnie in greasy overalls slinks away from the direction of the Barker’s seductive call. It is a place of illusion — is that woman’s beard real? How can she live locked in that watery box? And while many are tricked by sleight of hand, there are hints of something truly magical going on. One must remain alert and learn quickly the unwritten rules of this dark show. To beat the carnival, one had better have either a whole lot of luck or a whole lot of guns — or maybe some magic of one’s own. – Blurb from the back of Carniepunk, an anthology of short stories.
In Britain, we have funfairs. Sometimes they’re fixed places, like Dreamland in Margate or the one that used to be in Battersea Park in the 1950s. Sometimes, however, they travel and more often than not there is some kind of circus involved; the one that seems to do the rounds where I live is Santos’ Circus. As well as the circus, there are rides, dodgems, throwing and shooting games to win prizes, try your strength machines and such like.
In America, they have carnivals. They are essentially the same as the British travelling circus but to my mind have a much darker edge, much more like the Victorian freak shows of old (you can still find sepia photographs of circus freaks on Google from that period). The sideshows are a little more like performance art, the rides are bigger, louder, faster and there is a magic all of its own.
The fact is, this kind of travelling existence tends to create its own mythology; a community that travels together sticks together and so outsiders are generally treated with suspicion until they can prove their value to the community as a whole. It may be that they have encouraged the development of the mythology around them, and if that is so, then fair play to them.
It’s very true that the American travelling carnival has retained an allure for some decades; in the 1950s, Ray Bradbury wrote “Something Wicked This Way Comes” which takes place when the carney comes to town; Stephen King has used it as a backdrop to at least one of his short stories (although for the life of me, I can’t remember their titles without resorting to Wikipedia); and in the early 2000s, the TV series Carnivale (set in 1930s Dustbowl America) ran for two seasons. Amongst the goth community, there is a strong feeling of kinship towards the carniefolk, with the circus freaks often inspiring stories, songs and artworks galore.
So what is carniepunk? Well, if this anthology is anything to go by – it’s the dark side of the “traditional” American fairground, complete with genuine werewolves, fortune tellers that really can see the future and dark magic galore. I’m not sure any of the stories are any good; a lot of them seem to form parts of series which I haven’t read, and some are distinctly YA-Twilighty… but they are quite fun. Whether or not they are going to set a trend, like the cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades did in the 1980s, is anyone’s guess.