Friday, August 17, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #99: A review of "Mr. Dark's Carnival" by Glen Hirshberg

With a title like that, there’s only one thing that can come to mind: Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. Oddly enough, Bradbury’s novel has nothing to do with this tale, aside from homage.

When we first meet Professor David Roemer, he’s giving a lecture to a room full of college freshmen about the nature of myth. They live in a town in Montana where they have a very heavy Halloween myth about a fellow named Mr. Dark and his carnival to end all carnivals. Every year, some entrepreneur comes along to cash in on the myth with their own carnival dedicated to Mr. Dark, but it’s always just fun and games. Professor Roemer, our narrator, is here to disprove the myth.

You see, no one knows first hand anyone who was ever at the original so-called carnival. Roemer’s family has been in the area for about a century, and none of them have ever come in contact with someone who was there at the carnival. This leads him to believe that the carnival never happened. However, when one of his students asks about the reality of Mr. Dark, he has a different story.

Hirshberg is very good at building suspense by keeping key information from his readers, even though his characters are ready and eager to give away said information. But he falters a little bit elsewhere. We’ll get to that in a moment.

His lecture is interrupted by his boss, who tells him that there’s been a horrible incident. One of his brightest (and most disliked) students has killed himself, apparently at Roemer’s house, and the woman the professor stole from his student, Kate, is the one who found him.

He rushes home to Kate and tries to console her, but she drives him away. Roemer, who has always been a Halloween aficionado, and a huge fan of the Mr. Dark myth, goes out looking for new Mr. Dark carnivals. Instead, he finds a homeless guy on the bridge who presses an invitation into his hand . . . to Mr. Dark’s carnival.

(Incidentally, this is the third story in both volumes of this anthology to reference TREASURE ISLAND. Normally, these tales don’t refer directly to others, but TREASURE ISLAND must have made an enormous impact on horror writers over the course of the century.)

Though Roemer suspects this is another hoax, it seems like an impressive one, and he rushes back to Kate to tell her about it. Kate, who shares his interest, seems eager to forget about her dead ex-boyfriend and hit the road to this new carnival with her current boyfriend.

This is where Hirshberg falters. The dialogue between Roemer and Kate during this drive is all exposition. You know how in comic books, when a writer wants to make sure his readers are on the same page, he has his characters telling each other what happened in the previous issue? That’s how this conversation feels. It’s here that Roemer gives up all of his information about the real-life Mr. Dark, who was a judge in territorial days who perhaps unfairly executed a Chinese criminal by hanging. It’s good information to know, but it’s a shitty way to convey it.

Not only that, but Kate has completely forgotten about the body of her ex-boyfriend. She’s mirthful in the way she encourages Roemer’s information-spouting ways. That’s not really what a grieving person would do.

Also, he never makes any connection between Mr. Dark (or more suitably, Judge Dark) and the so-called carnival. In fact, he never explains the carnival at all, which seems like kind of an important thing to do. He vaguely makes reference to missing cattle and children, but that’s it.

As Roemer and Kate approach the carnival, they start getting the sense that something’s not right. They run into one of Roemer’s students, a girl named Tricia (who, naturally, every boy in class has an interest in), and they discover that there’s a funhouse. However, nightgown-clad ushers separate people from their dates and make them go through the funhouse either alone or with someone else entirely. Kate is taken away from Roemer, and later, he and Tricia are put through the funhouse.

SPOILER ALERT: As you can imagine, the funhouse isn’t all that fun. It’s very much a real haunted house, and Roemer and Tricia are put through the wringer. They’re pursued through the house by a judge-thing, and they have to be careful where they step because some of the floor is . . . boggy, almost like quicksand. They wade through a pool of severed thumbs. All the while, Roemer marvels at how good a hoax this is, and he can’t wait to talk to his students about it on Monday.

And then, he realizes it’s not a hoax, when he finds Kate, who opens up her coat to reveal there’s a giant hole blown through her stomach, a hole her ex-boyfriend made before he shot himself . . . .

That’s a pretty decent twist, and it goes a far way toward explaining her gleefulness earlier in the car. What comes next is unforgivable, though. It highly suggests that Roemer, our narrator, was killed by the ghost of Judge Dark, even though this tale is written in the past tense. END OF SPOILERS.

There is a lot to be said for this story. There’s a lot of good fun to be had. However, the bad points are so terrible that they kind of ruin the good points. In the long run, you should probably give it a try, but you’ll probably be frustrated by the end.

[This story first appeared in SHADOWS AND SILENCE, and it cannot be read online at this time.]

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