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Tabula Rasa

Clowns At Midnight

by Terry Dowling, PS Publishing, United Kingdom, 2010

Reviewed by Kyla Ward, 2004

At some level I knew it was important. I accepted it in spite of what had happened, despite what was happening still.

The operative words. In spite of.

What we know in spite of. What we do. What we let ourselves become.

I couldn't bear to leave.

Instead, I stopped at Rackham's Hardware, bought new deadlocks for the house doors, three security chains with padlocks just in case.

Clowns at Midnight, by Terry DowlingAny protagonist over the age of twelve should feel uneasy upon discovering a mysterious tower overlooking their new house. Ritualistic vandalism and references to ancient gods should hone their suspicions, and when their neighbours reveal a hedge maze in their back yard, even the most gung-ho must surely assume this is a horror novel and decamp. But, as the quote above shows, Clowns At Midnight is no ordinary horror novel and David Leeton is not just any protagonist. An author, musician and ex-teacher, he has made confronting fear part of his day to day life. As a clinical coulrophobe, whom the face of a clown can reduce to catatonia, he has no choice.

Terry Dowling is one of Australia's most respected living writers of speculative fiction. He is an author, musician and ex-teacher who describes himself as an "imagier" -- one who imagines, and prefers not to be labelled as writing science fiction, fantasy or indeed horror. Also known as a critic and reviewer, I should reveal at this point that he said some very nice things about Prismatic in the Australian (21st October, 2006). But that's the Australian SF scene for you.

David has come to Starbreak Fells, a country property in an isolated corner of New South Wales, both to work on his new novel and as part of his treatment. The recent end of a relationship triggered a relapse of those symptoms his psychotherapist has been working so hard with him to control. Building mental protocols, analysing the components of his fear and even inoculation through a selected library of images. In such remote surroundings, scoured of anything even reminiscent of a clown, puppet or mask, he can work through his fears at his own pace and perhaps finally master them. But the powers that have always been have their own plan for David and no scruples about exploiting his weakness.

That much of this struggle is literally symbolic is part of what makes Clowns At Midnight such an unusual book. The sheer courage and intelligence with which David defends himself, alternately wielding logic, intuition and humour, becomes breathtaking. But the other part is the revelation and seduction of the Adversary. Clowns sets itself up as a conventional horror story, perhaps even a quiet, old-fashioned one in the style of Dennis Wheatley. Do not be fooled. Not only does it deliver the shocks, this is one of the few books I have encountered that attempts to deal with paganism as a serious contemporary force.

The voluminous research this involves might prove a sticking point for some people. Alright, probably for quite a lot of people. Clowns earned Terry a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia and a certain amount of the process seems to be replicated in the text. But as is always the case in his work, the reader must play by his rules. She must consent to be educated, to endure repetition, examine minutiae and the changing appearance of the sky. In return, he will show you fear in a handful of computer files, or a squeaking wheel. Terry scares me. He scares me repeatedly, almost reliably, in such beautiful prose as deserves comparison to Vance or Chesterton.

In his short stories, most recently collected in Basic Black (Cemetery Dance Publications, 2006, winner of the International Horror Guild Award for Best Collection), Terry Dowling demonstrates a talent for expressing the supernatural through the processes of the mundane world. Through the eerie psychology of "Jenny Come To Play" and the appalling methodology of "Toother" (winner of the 2007 Australian Shadows Award), he creates a kind of heightened reality in which the most extreme things are as possible as taking a walk or making a cup of tea. As far back as The Man Who Lost Red/Scaring the Train (Mirrordanse Books, 1994) he shows an understanding of what I call ritual -- that is, a carefully orchestrated sequence of events whose event surpasses the sum of the parts. This comes to the fore in Clowns. If I were to call it a magical book, it would not in any way mean delightful, distracting or, the Gods help us, sparkly. We're dealing with mamuthone here! Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle: chink, chink, chink - the perfect antidote to jingle bells in an Australian midsummer. Who could resist the idea that these antique clowns, that all clowns, were once something else?

I almost hesitate to point out the Australian setting, although this is intrinsic to the tale both stylistically and as it turns out, magically. Although everyone from David to his neighbours are strangers here, transplanted, these events could happen nowhere else. If the idea of a hedge maze on a pig farm makes you laugh, then I can only assure you that between these darkly elegant covers, it is not only natural but inevitable. The cover is by renowned Australian artist Nick Stathopolous. I heard Terry say that Nick "got it" (during the Australian Gothic panel at the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, in fact).

I must say that I am not entirely comfortable with those few female characters present in this milieu of so-called women's mysteries. To state the importance and power of women is one thing: to show them alternatively as wonderful cooks and homemakers, and rampaging sexual monsters is, well, not exactly groundbreaking. If they are so important, why is this story not told from a female point of view? The answer is that the author of this clearly, very personal odyssey is male. While this is natural and possibly inevitable, it reminds me irresistibly of another Terry, Terry Pratchett's crack that most books about witches tell you they work naked. This is because most books about witches are written by men.

Clowns has a subtitle overlapping that of Basic Black, "(A) Tale(s) of Appropriate Fear". This is certainly one of the themes of the book: fear as primal, fear as necessary, even helpful. Beyond his specific triggers, David has come to fear fear itself and in some ways his progress is that of reclaiming a positive fear. Just stop for a moment and think what a heretical concept this in our society, that fear can be good. Given this, the ending surprised me: I was not expecting things to play out as they did. The question is, is this because the change of pace is too abrupt? Perhaps I read too lazily, relying on those initial genre signals. Or perhaps this is indeed the path laid out for the reader and I was simply obeying Terry's rules. In the upshot, Clowns is probably more an exemplar or pilgrim's progress than horror... or could it possibly be a ritual? Confronted by this question, I find myself undecided. I am inclined to state outright that a book can only describe a ritual. But this gives the work of fiction the same limit as that of history or anthropology, which doesn't seem quite right. I don't think this book actually depicts the mystery it approaches, but surely it gets closer than that?

I suspect this is one of those books that gives people back what they put into it and yes, that does sound like a ritual. Those not willing to think it through will be bored and confused, and write it off as quaint and talky. Maybe leaf through it to find the kinky clown sex. I am not expecting it to make any converts to either paganism or feminism, but if Clowns does nothing but prove there is an alternative to The DaVinci Code and its spawn, then its value is undeniable.

 

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