Jan 15, 2009

The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliot - review

The Pilo Family Circus
by Will Elliott
Underland Press, 2009

Who here hates clowns? Raise your hand if you find their frantic capering less hilarious and more creepy, their makeup less laugh-inducing and more terrifying. And what's with that car, endlessly vomiting forth all manner of the greasepaint monkeys?

Not for nothing has the Barnum & Bailey jesters become almost a staple of horror fiction, as well as nightmares - who can forget Kramer's meeting with Crazy Joe Davola (clad as Pagliacci) in Seinfeld? What about Pennywise in Stephen King's classic IT? Ramsey Campbell's newest horror release The Grin of the Dark? Clive Barker's horrifying short story Dread? What about John Wayne Gacy, full-time serial killer and part-time children's party clown? Jerry Lewis' legendary unfinished film The Day the Clown Cried, about a clown who (no kidding) entertains Jewish children on their way to the ovens? There is something disturbingly surreal and upsetting about clowns, and it's not merely their inch-thick face paint or their thick bloody smiles plastered over frowns. And we're supposed to find this amusing? Feh. They may pledge allegiance to the classic tenets of commedia dell'arte, but they are simply insane.

Will Elliot understands the clown. He knows that underneath their floppy shoes and fuzzy hair lies a malevolence that cannot be concevied of by mere mortals. The clown is an immortal evil, a hilarity terrorist (hilarrorist?). Clowns are up to absolutely no good.
The Pilo Family Circus proves it.

The Pilo Family Circus (published by Underland Press, and rapidly becoming a publisher to watch for the eerie, unusual, and crazy good [see: Brian Evenson's Last Days]) does for clowns what Thomas Harris' Red Dragon did for psychiatrists and Alone in the Dark did for Christian Slater's career. That is, alter the subject in such a way that you cannot ever look at them in the same light again. In Elliott's skillful hands, clowns are not merely evil; they are capital E Evil, spawns of Hell, monsters of the id, and responsible for some of the most horrific atrocities in human history.

Pilo centres on Jamie, a rather unassuming chap, saddled with a lousy job and unpleasant roommates. On his way home one night, he happens to run into a trio of strangely-clad individuals, and becomes targeted by a cabal of clowns the likes of which no one has ever seen (or remembered). Turns out, they like Jamie, and are giving him a chance to join Gonko, Rufshod, Winston, Goshy, and the rest of the maniacal troupe, which in turn is part of the legendary Pilo Family Circus. But when in makeup, Jamie does not remain Jamie; Jamie transforms into J.J., a seriously demented mirth-maker of the lowest calibre. J.J. is sly, cowardly, and not to be trusted. And he's not Jamie's biggest fan.

Elliott mixes Jamie's struggle with the day-to-day goings on of the circus, a monstrous creation that Elliott clearly had a ball with. A centuries-old institution run by Pilo brothers Kurt and George, the circus is a menagerie of everything bad under the sun (not that the sun ever shines on the Pilo Family Circus). What the circus is is left vague, but it is intensely clear that its members are responsible for some of the world's most awful crimes. It is a purgatory, a circle of hell Dante never dared dream existed, and Elliott revels in its twisted labyrinth of doom.

It sounds weird - hell, it is weird; how could a novel about evil clowns in a demented limbo populated by carnival freaks and oddities be anything but - but Elliott artfully balances the more overt horror aspects of  Pilo with those of the more psychological nature. There is much in the way of physical brutality in Pilo's pages (another creepy clown thing I've never fully gotten behind), but what drives the novel is Jamie's desperate fight to hold onto his identity. The psychological horrors of addiction are well-represented in Jamie's plight, and Elliott does a masterful job at outlining his plight while at the same time keeping the story moving. And move it does, like a mother. 

The Pilo Family Circus is one nasty machine, a kaleidoscope of black magic, pratfalls, and subconscious desires best left unsaid. Will Elliott is definitely an author to watch.


Anonymous said...

Hey Corey!

I have a great photo of aged 3 me, on Bozo's lap, screaming my freaking head off.

Hate clowns. Just loathe them!!

Have you read Frozen Beneath by Brian Horeck.
Is it horrible beyond reason?
I can't find a copy.


Corey said...

I'm in NB, so the chances of coming across one are slim. I'll keep my eyes open.

Wanda said...

I grew up watching Bimbo the Birthday Clown on The Uncle Bobby Show (can still sing the words to the song) and always thought highly of clowns, even had a dog named Bimbo. Of course, that was before I was aware of Stephen King's "It" and John Wayne Gacy!

My teenage daughter is not fond of clowns either but my theory here is that she was way too young when she caught a certain "Simpsons" episode where Bart is afraid to go to sleep because the "Clown will eat me!"

Great review Corey but I'm afraid the only thing I'd like about this book is the cover photo.

J Squared said...

I was just in Northern Ontario and bought the masterpiece Frozen Beneath after seeing all of the billboards and gas station ads. Wow. I would be happy to send it to either of you. It is very Horeckian.

LIL' Devil74 said...

I'm not a big reader especially fiction but, I think that may change. I kinda stumbled onto "The Pilo Family Circus" by accident. I was looking for a new book that could hold my interest, in the same way that Phillip Carlos' book about Richard "The ICE MAN" Kuklinski did. I was browsing in the "True Crime" section of Borders, not even considering fictional writings, as I didn't think that I would really get into something that wasn't based on a true story. I came across "TPFC" and read it's first few pages. Thinking it was a true crime novel, I desided to check it out while at the store. After reading a few chapters, I wasn't sure that it was going to hold my interest. I put the book back where I had found it, not really planning to go any further with it. I came back to Borders on a different day and decided to give it another look. I found myself starting to enjoy the mystery of the strange notes, left behind for Jamie by the tormenting clowns. More and more, I wanted to learn about Jamie's misfortune and undesired adventures, into the clowns unrelenting grasp. I couldn't believe how vivid my visions of the individual characters, and happenings started to unfold in my mind as the pages kept turning under my fingers. I was hooked after that! I find myself wanting to finish the story, but at the same time I want it to keep going never to end, to keep entertaining me. It's a really dark and interesting read. The characters have inspired me, to try to illustrate some of my favorite scenes, like when Jamie first uses the face paint and becomes "JJ".
I can't wait to read some new Will Elliot stories!

Corey said...

I look forward to seeing the images, I'm sure they'll be disturbing. But then, all pictures of clowns are disturbing anyway.

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