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Writing a Novel Set in a ‘Post-Collapse’ Circus Freak Show, by Ben Marshall

I chose a circus freak show as the world for my novel for two principal reasons – Ray Bradbury’s 1960’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Tod Browning’s 1932 ground-breaking film, Freaks. Something Wicked This Way Comes elicits mystery and horror.  Freaks elicits horror and pity.  The book sends chills because we struggle to imagine the horrors.  The film gives us nightmares because we see the horrors are real.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember your reactions to it long after you forgot the plot was a thwarted-love story. The freaks in the film were borrowed from various travelling circuses and sideshows of the time.  Browning had worked as a carney and his good nature allowed us to see people whose physical appearance and mental attributes shock us. It’s only a mild spoiler-alert to mention the real freaks of the movie aren’t the ones with disabilities.

I broke my leg one time, and because I was living in the tropics, the second cast was replaced with a moulded plastic brace I could take on and off.  The climate was hot so I wore shorts, leaving the brace exposed.  What reaction would you expect I’d get from people in the street?  You’d probably expect, say, mild concern or sympathy plus a few what-the looks, right?  I got them alright, but what surprised me – what shocked me – were the occasional looks of disgust and horror from people.  Micro-expressions mostly, but they were there.  Never from kids, rarely from men, mostly from young to middle-aged women – my age at the time.
If I copped disgust for a mere damaged leg, what do people with a pronounced physical disability get?
My point here is that we react in a visceral way when we see freaks.
A deformed human makes our minds flip between repugnance and compassion.  On a deeper level it can also inspire ontological questions.  And that’s why freak shows did so well before the advent of film and television.   As we react to see a man with no limbs roll, light and smoke a cigarette, we’re relieved we aren’t like him, but we fear and resent him because he challenges the idea of a fair and compassionate god.
And where there is fear, there is hate.  It’s one of the reasons Freaks was banned for decades and the maker forced to change the ending. My freaks exist in the tough world of the post-collapse future.  More like the Great Depression than The Road, it’s a world that uses what resources it can from the technological past while returning to a semi-medievalised world-view.  It’s less a dystopian vision than it is humans returning to a kind of default state.
All of which brings me to my theory.
My last novel manuscript was set in the seventeenth century.  I wanted to explore a world where the medieval met the Age of Reason because, technology aside, I think that’s where humans stopped evolving intellectually. We’re still fearful, superstitious and quick to lash out at difference.  We haven’t really advanced beyond the thought that if we can’t understand something, God did it, and we don’t need to strain our brains a second longer thinking about it or asking intelligent questions.
So this new novel, The Pricking of Thumbs, is my chance to explore what emerges from the rubble, and what our default world-view is.  I don’t know the answers to those questions yet – I’m only a hundred and thirty pages in, and there’s a lot of looking around to do before I suss it.  Still, I have good companions – freaks take nothing for granted and are tougher than I’ll ever be.


Ben Marshall bio page

Something Wicked This Way ComesThe Night CircusWater for Elephants: a NovelMiss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenIt (Signet)On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

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