So, full disclosure, I'm in this special print anthology of Unlikely Story's Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix. As such, I will not be reviewing my story, "Pushpin and Pullpin." As Unlikely Story is on my list of regularly reviewed publications, though, I will be looking at the rest of the original short stories. I've already read the five that originally appeared for free online in the Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia, and those can be found here. There's tons of original flash in this print anthology, though, and I'm in superb company in the ToC. There are clowns for every preference, of every taste and shape (though I do not recommend tasting the clowns). And the anthology as a whole plots a rather deep descent into the dark possibilities of clowning. It's difficult in ways that one might not expect from a clown flash fiction anthology, but it is incredibly good. So without further ado, to some reviews!
|Art by Linda Saboe|
"Gags, Bits, and Business" by T. Jane Berry (1033 words)
This story takes an interesting look at a clown autopsy, told from the point of view of the medical examiner. The story does a nice job of slowly building the creepy, dropping in the little hints that something's going on that's…not quite normal. The real conflict comes from the meeting of the logical, clinical world of the medical examiner and the magical and horrifying world of the clown and Osmina, the magician. [SOME SPOILERS!] Caught in between is Tom, the medical assistant, and the story becomes something of a battle over his soul, the ugliness of a corpse on a table against the wonder of candied innards and a stage and a show and an audience. It's a creepy tale because given the setup there really is no contest between the two, and the implication is that most people, or at least many people, would prefer the magic, even though the magic seems dangerous, twisted. There is a sense of something dark stretching out its hand, disguised as a magic eight ball, and with a candy-coating to make it go down smooth. It's a rather clever piece that shows that desire in people for a simple narrative, something that doesn't need to make sense as long as it's palatable, and just how dangerous such a mentality can be. A fine read!
"Mr. Boingo Saves the World" by J.H. Pell (1036 words)
Ah, the alien terror of clowns. Here is a fun and funny little story about the strangeness without and the strangeness within. And about cosmic coincidences. The story opens on an alien invasion. The main character is an aged clown, tired but trying to spread some joy in the face of despair, in face of the end of the world. Which is nicely done, and I quite enjoyed the voice of the main character, the man behind the makeup and sadness of a life that has seemed a bit…shallow. [SPOILERS FROM HERE] But when faced by an alien creature arrived to spread the dominion of whatever power it represents, this old man finds a bit of strength in his paint and wig. In the mutual terror he and the alien evoke in each other. It's a joke, yes, and a rather funny one, but it's also about (to me at least) blinking first. There is that great moment when the man knows the alien is afraid of him, even as he is afraid of the alien, and in that moment he has to find a way to use that fear, to get over his own, and it's very well rendered, a powerful moment that shifts the momentum of not just that one encounter but in the entire invasion. From there Mr. Boingo takes command and shows that age does not make someone useless, even if they are a clown. It's a sweet story, fun and hopeful and full of the weirdness and fear of clowns being used for good. Indeed!
"An Argument for Clowning on the Sabbath" by Jeff Wolf (969 words)
I don't think I ever expected to read a theological argument surrounding clowning, and yet this is a very neat little story that features two clowns having such an argument. The two clowns are having to find a way to try and justify working on the Sabbath, something that their Jewish faith doesn't exactly look kindly on. The story takes the form of their argument, the back and forth, the hypotheticals and the logic used to try and get around a mandate that isn't always practical, especially for people who need to work when there is work. It's a rather clever exchange, and the tone and the feel of the story is very well done, that wanting not to sin but having to work with the situation, wanting to find a loophole as if faith allows for such semantic trickery. But then, religious law often is full of such devices, such workarounds, and to see it applied to clowning here is interesting and fun. This isn't about the inhumanity of clowns, nor really the uniqueness of clowns. It's about the mundane humanity of clowning, the business of it and the art of it and a look at one moment between two clowns and their faith and their friendship.
"'Thou Antic Death': The Killer Clown in Culture, Theory, and Practice" by Kristen Roupenian (700 words)
This is an interesting and chilling story that uses the form of an abstract and acknowledgements from a thesis paper to get across a picture of horror and murder and culture. The idea behind the paper, that depictions of killers circle back around and inspire new killers, is interesting and compelling, something that would indeed make a fascinating paper. Most people know the instances of evil clowns and that it acts as a sort of echo chamber makes sense, amplifying the fear of clowns and shifting connotation about what clowns represent. But the story doesn't stop there, makes the paper personal and tragic and yeah, just really manages to get across a lot in a very little space. There is just a sense that so much has happened, that the paper is being written about this story that is disturbing and real. This is another story that doesn't really try to make clowns into something inhuman or magical or alien, but rather as showing the clown persona as hiding something entirely human but also, well, evil. And perhaps that's what makes it more hitting, more disturbing, because it drops out the speculative elements entirely to reveal something that is entirely horror but also doesn't provide the distance of magical or alien explanations. And the framing of the story works to sell it, to show the loss and horror and just let it linger. A very well constructed and executed story!
"The Game" by Mari Ness (990 words)
Well fuck. You know, when you see that a collection is of clown flash fiction you might think "What fun!" You'd not be wrong, exactly, because many of the stories are fun, and many of the stories are funny and light. But others…are not. And this one is definitely not funny and definitely not light. But it is very good. In it a clown plays chess with death. The clown is in the hospital with cancer and plays with Death because…well, because Death wanted to play chess with her. The story is about loss and mortality and about reaching for something in the face of the end, but it's also about misdirection. Juggling takes up an important roll in the story, keeping things in the air, the reader expectations and the hope and the tragedy and everything being cast up and then crashing back down. The story doesn't reveal an awful lot about what's going on, just that the clown has cancer and is being cared for by another woman and is playing chess with Death, a game neither of them are good at. There is such a weight to this story, though, to the slow way everything breaks down and is revealed. The game is not a game, is not what I thought it was, becomes something else and damn I would not expect a story this short to hit as hard as it does but it's grim ("Get it? Grim? Grim Reaper?") and it's dark and it made me cry. So yeah, definitely give this one a look.
"Melpomene's Heirs" by Evan Dicken (1000 words)
This story continues the rather dark and bleak trajectory of the collection, once again focusing on a family rocked by cancer but in a different, and a bit more hopeful, a way. Here Becky and the main character, the narrator, have lost their son (awesomely named Charlie) to cancer and are being followed by a flock of clowns. The story seems to focus on the clowns' ability to facilitate grieving, trying to get through the prevalent and oppressive numbness that takes hold of the main characters' lives. Here we see the changing faces of clowns, something a little creepy but also as healers. There is the saying that laughter is the best medicine and the story does an excellent job of showing the clowns as both annoying but ultimately helpful. Annoying because the main characters want to remain in their pain, to punish themselves and to hold to what they can of their child, and the clowns intrude upon that, not in an overpowering way but subtly. The story takes a soft touch and manages to touch on a very powerful central idea (the loss of a young child) without making a joke out of it or treating it with disrespect. There is a tragedy to it but also the sense that there is still life, something that the clowns are a reminder of, that laughter is waiting for when the characters are ready. It's a nice piece that ends on a hopeful note that resonates well.
"Stilts" by Line Henriksen (759 words)
Slowly the momentum of the collection is reaching back from the pits of despair, but a bit slowly. Here is a story that's steeped in fear and things emerging from below. It is the first at least that takes so literal a use of the collections call (coulrophobia) and even provides a bit of etymology for the word, drawing it together in a story about someone facing their fears. That the narrator of the story has gone into the deep internet, basically, and something has followed them out. Something of the internet and of their fear equally. [SPOILERS MAYBE?] I love the build of this story, the shift of scenes from the narrator in their bed to the conversation with a friend and back. And forth. Like the stilt-walker of the story. It's a nice way of evoking both the fear of clowns and the fear of the unknown and the fear of the internet and all of it, linking them together to show this shadow-space where things are lurking, where fears ferment. The idea of stilts is interesting here, the image of something looming, and the story plays with the unseen, with the shadows and the implications and the void instead of something tangible. It does a really good job of getting across the feeling of fear, and especially of irrational fear, something nearly primal that doesn't make sense necessarily but is no less real and compelling. Another fine read!
"Queen and Fool" by Dayle A. Dermatis (500 words)
Well this is rather…unusual story about power and the relationship between two of the archetypal clowns, a man always trying to win the heart of a woman. It's complicated by the idea of masks and, perhaps, masquerade, the power that resides with Columbia over her Harlequin, Arlecchino. [SPOILERS] The story explore that, expands it, makes it so that Arlecchino is in something of a BDSM relationship with her, giving her pleasure but always denied it himself, wearing a "chastity" cage so that he can't become erect, so that he is forever teased and denied release, and yet he enters this relationship openly, and that aspect of the story plays on the humiliation and degradation that in this case rewarding, that in this case is both performative and reflecting the complex nature of the pair and their relationship. I'm all for stories that explore the various ways that relationships can form, the way that pleasure and pain can be linked. At least, that's how I'm reading the story, as a way of exploring a non-traditional relationship through the lens of these two famous clowns, their act taking on new and deeper implications with the added wrinkle of this aspect of their selves. And as that it's a quite good story, sensual and complex and, for the reader at least, satisfying.
"God's Children" by Jason Arias (1034 words)
This story does a nice job of mixing the goofiness of clowns and clowning with some deeper and darker and more disturbing elements by basically creating a religion of clowns. A religion where God is laughing at everyone and the clowns are laughing with Him. And there is some humor to the piece, the ways in which the ridiculousness of the idea of a religion of clowning are set up. Face-paint and giant shoes and wigs and everything contrasted with the growing realization that things are not exactly all smiles with the clown brothers. [SPOILERS!!!] But I do quite like how the story builds up the idea that religion, basically, can be used for extremism, and how delightfully creepy a clown religion might be. That here are clowns who have been in many ways made into religious zealots and soldiers and asking, essentially, if it's any more ridiculous than any other religion asking people to kill. Regardless of the religion, the scary part stops being the clown aspect of the story and becomes the extremist aspect of it. That all something requires is true believers to be a religion, but that belief can often lend itself in certain ways, and to certain people, who use it as an excuse to hurt and terrify. That, in many ways, anyone trying to use religion to kill or hurt becomes a clown, a ridiculous mirror of what faith should be about. It's a rather subtle message for a story that is at the surface a bit silly, but it's also dark and nicely done. Indeed!
"Clown's Syndrome" by Joe Nazare (1038 words)
The slow ascent toward lighter stories continues with this story (though there was a moment there that I thought it was going to really, really dark), about an unemployed clown named Nestor driving cross-country to try and sell a variation on the clown-car act. The story is told as a story, a sort of confessional tale of Nestor's time with a sideshow, taking part in a clown-car act. And I love the nostalgia of it, the yearning that is conveyed so effortlessly with his story, the way that it represents for Nestor a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, a kind of comfort that the wide world does not offer him. [SPOILERS! YOU ARE WARNED!] And I love the way that it has changed him, the way that he is trying to recapture that feeling even if it's false, even if it's not with real people. But that need to be surrounded, to be packed in, is one that I think is easy to understand, that even pressed so close he could barely move, he was a part of something. And, that taken away, he is lost and directionless, reaching back toward something that is truly gone. In that sense it is a rather sad story, the tragedy that he can't seem to find a place like that, that for him the ending of the sideshow broke him, loosed him from his handle on the world. But it's also a story of pushing on, and for him he's managed to find something, at least, for however long it lasts, a bit of the sideshow to take with him. Which is, if not happy, at least something.
"Clown Car, Driven Once, Never Emptied" by Karlo Yeager-Rodriguez (615 words)
Ah, I kind of love the title of this story, the way it evokes that old Hemingway anecdote and the way it brings up a subtle unease. It's an unease that has taken full control of the main character of the story, Dan, who has…clown issues. On the verge of having to leave his family because of clown-related trauma he suffered as a child, Dan is on the run, running from the police and his family and his own fears and issues. It's that running that has been the problem with Dan, and the story captures the fear and the panic and his breakdown very well, the way the clowns seem to be closing in on him, the way that it's not really certain if it's all in his head, brought on by stress and childhood trauma or if it's real, real and he's the only one seeing it. I'd personally side with the first option there, because the story seems to be about fear and about stress and about running. That you can't really run from your past or your problems or your faults, that what Dan wants if to never have to face what happened to him. He won't take responsibility for his life and so he runs, sublimates his fear and pain into anger and panic and just goes. But obviously you can't really run from yourself, from your own head, and so things don't exactly go the greatest for him. But the story is tightly plotted and tensely told, a nice sense of horror running throughout and a very vivid and creepy way Dan's fears are coming for him. Don't miss this one!
"Whaling With Clowns" by Chris Kuriata (1015 words)
Well here's a wildly imaginative tale of clowns being used at sea to hunt whales. On a ship that has been stuck at sea for some time, driven by a captain with no regard for crew or safety, a whale is finally seen, and the clown in the hold is finally brought out to hunt. I love the descriptions in this story, the way it all fits together, the sailors still sailors with their superstitions and fears and the tyrannical captain still there to doom them all and all of it with the addition of clowns as some sort of whale predator. It really is creepy as hell imagining a clown swimming, propelled by those huge feet, mouth dripping acid, with a hunger that must be sated. And here the anthology is, well, certainly not shaking off the darkness, as this story is very dark. But it is getting some of the fun back, the action and the drive and the slapstick and the terror of clowns. The story moves quickly and with plenty of small flourishes and gags that had me smiling throughout, entertained and unable to look away even as things got out of hand for the sailors and their hopes turned to screams. It's snappy and combines the classic elements with horror and fantasy and it just works. So yeah, another great story!
"Clown Shoes" by Cassandra Khaw (762 words)
Well the faster pacing and the darkness mixed with inventive and imaginative twists on our world continue with this story where clowns are something like wild animals, where clown shoes are living things and where a family has been broken and is trying to knit itself together again. The focus is on a young woman and her kid brother Jameson. The young woman, the narrator, is jaded and sharp, prickly from a lifetime of horror, of disappointment, of loss. The clowns in the setting can be feral, can be dangerous, are treated by turns as animals, as pets, but there's something in the family's past that suggests the clowns can be more, that they are sentient and that the family is still nursing wounds inflicted because of it. There's also hints that clowns might be the result of a disease. I love the uncertainty of it, the fear that rises out of not knowing quite what's going on. As a piece of flash it excels at dropping the reader into a setting that is rich and strange and a bit like our own but different enough to create a compelling central mystery and makes the family drama and sacrifice that the main character is willing to make all the more layered and tragic. Because, more than her fear of the clowns, her hatred of them, is her desire to protect her brother and unite her family. A great read!
"A Silent Comedy" by Cate Gardner (650 words)
Things remain tense and driven in this story, where clowns are creatures capable of stealing voice, of stealing sound, of consuming it and locking it forever away. Rita begins the story in a strange bar, in a bathroom filled with mimes, trying desperately to retain her voice, not to scream at their aggression, their hunger, not to show fear or give them any bit of herself. In some ways the story can be seen as addressing tone policing and the expectations placed on women facing harassment. Be calm and don't shout. Don't scream. Don't give the man a reason to escalate, don't seem hysteric or unhinged or any of the ways that victims of male aggression are dismissed and ignored. It's a tense story and a terrifying one, the oppression of it, the fear and the resolve to not speak and all the ways that the situation works against the victim, the person just trying to enjoy herself. It's a nuanced story and a very well constructed one, the way voice is emphasized, the way that the mimes feed off of the panic, the pain. The they aren't afraid, don't need a voice even to be held higher, to be safer. They assault from a position of power and impunity, and it's uncomfortable and jarring and very well done. And the ending! I'm trying not to spoil this one but the ending is perfect, the sinking gutpunch of it, the grin and the everything. Go read it!
"Clowns of the Creosote Plains" by Chillbear Latrigue (1034 words)
The post-apocalypse seems like a pretty terrible to live in this story, which manages to imbue the wasteland of the world after some sort of war or disaster or..something, with a fun energy and infectious laugh. The voice of the story is probably my favorite part of it, though the visuals that the story manages and the final chaotic scene are both also great and deserve to be called out for their awesome. The voice, though, captures some of the expected grit of the world after the fall, dropping hints that things out there are pretty bad while also maintaining a banter that is light and fun and funny. There is something vaguely unhinged about the voice, about the troupe, about the way everything works. From the Wise Old Clown to the "assault" on the camp at the end, things are not quite what they seem and yet they run on a logic embedded in this wasteland. And it makes for a fun and great read, the characters a bit vague but in the face of the setting they're enough that it still works, that the action has weight and hilarity, and bends expectations about what these clowns are up to in their travels. The embedded clown facts are also a neat touch, the only story to use them thusly and it works well, breaking the action enough to give the story a unique feel. A very entertaining story!
"A Distant Honk" by Holly Schofield (1030 words)
Well the anthology came a long way from the dark depths that it sank, and by the end it's mostly brought itself back up to stories on the fun and upbeat side of things, so it's fitting that the last story in the collection manages to be both rather cute and also rather somber. This one once more imagines clowns as more animal-like, a bit like bears and prone to hibernating through the winter. [SPOILERS? PROBABLY] The main character in this story is a biologist studying the clowns, and perhaps one of the last to do so, as climate change has driven the clowns precariously toward extinction. Walking the woods where some of the last clowns roam free, the narrator has a moving respect for the clowns, knows their danger but also knows that the world would be a poorer place without them around. It's a rather ponderous piece, though the voice and the small details surrounding the clowns lead humor to an otherwise rather sad situation. The story addresses human impacts on the environment, and our roll in protecting species from extinction. And the clowns make a joke of it, not in the sense that it mocks conservation or climate change, but as a way to provoke, to ask people if it's funny if it's clowns. To push that small detail. With clowns the instinct is to assume it's not serious, just as people treat climate change, like some farce being performed, when the truth is that things are happening that cannot be undone, and we might look up one day and realize that the world is a less colorful place than it once was. A great, fitting way to close out the issue.