I have a deep and passionate love of dark carnival stories. Carnivals are thrilling and terrifying to begin with – strangers in costume, haunted houses, practitioners of the occult – so throw in a serial killer or a dark magician and you've got a recipe for a spine tingly good time.
I thought I'd seen it all, from trashy fun like Dean Koontz's The Funhouse to more cerebral offerings like Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. But I'd never come across an Aussie carnie tale – until now.
And when you think about it, a novel like Carnies, by Martin Livings, is long overdue. Australia, with its long stretches of highway, teeny tiny towns and patches of rural isolation, provides a lot of places for a dark carnival to hide – and thrive. Such is the case of the Dervish Carnival, a century old fair that exists in an uneasy truce with the small town of Tillbrook.
David Hampden is a washed up print journalist whose previous investigative career has given way to writing puff for the weekend glossy. His brother Paul is a sometime photographer who has become a housebound slacker following a workplace accident and relationship breakdown. When David is contacted anonymously about the Dervish Carnival, he hopes that a story about the ominous carnival will revive his career. And so the brothers set out to Tillbrook to see what the carnival has to offer. Along the way they encounter bikies and a secret sect of townspeople, until it becomes difficult to tell who the bad guys really are.
With my carnival-horror pedigree behind me, I expected the brothers would encounter a family of maniacal killers or some kind of supernatural terror. This was my first – but certainly not my last – surprise. Rather than repairing their semi-estranged relationship by fighting the horrors of the carnival, the brothers are forced to confront their familial demons – and each other.
You may have to fight an urge to roll your eyes once you learn the secret of the carnival. For a novel that's so original in so many ways, the demons are a little... tropey, and Livings doesn't really add much to the genre. But you'll get past that fairly quickly. Carnies is excellently plotted – pay attention to small details, because they may become plot points later – and just as excellently paced. The novel takes its time introducing its main characters and setting the scene, before taking a sharp left turn and sending the rest of the action on a tack you probably won't see coming. There's enough gore to satisfy the dedicated horror aficionado, but it's never gratuitous; enough to thrill, but not to gross out.
Carnies is the debut novel of Martin Livings, an Australian Shadow Awards winning author of short fiction. It was originally published by Hachette Livre in 2006 and an updated version was re-released by Cohesion Press in 2014. Copies are available on Amazon (print and ebook), Smashwords, iTunes, Nook, and all good online bookstores.
* The writer would like to thank Cohesion Press for providing a copy of Carnies.