Hell is Murky


David G. Mitchell


There are moments of overwhelming emotion that leave us breathless and feeling that our lungs will never fill with enough air again. Those are the moments suck at our souls, leaving us with unanswered questions and so much remorse we just wish that things could go back to the way they used to be. Those are the moments that we always remember, and we do not necessarily share with anyone else. For me, those moments are as varied as the years of my life: the phone I call I received after a close friend committed suicide in high school, watching footage of the Twin Towers toppling, even watching Boys in the Hood when it was in theaters in 1989. In each case, there was a moment of clarity, a moment in which I knew that things could never go back to the way that they were. In some cases the world had changed in great ways.  In other instances the world may barely have noticed what had happened. In all cases, I knew that I had been changed, not for good or ill necessarily, but changed nonetheless.

Although the magnitude was not the same, reading William Ollie’s Sideshow gave me the same feeling. I know that the story of an evil carnival that brings torment to a Southern town cannot have the same impact as the defining events of the past century, but it still caused a host of conflicting emotions and unanswered questions—questions with which I have wrestled since I first picked up the book. What qualities cause me to determine whether I enjoy a book? How does my enjoyment of something that I know to be unpleasant reflect on me as a person? When is violence gratuitous and when is it necessary to communicate an author’s message? In large part, those questions relate to the nature of reading, which has always been a central part of my life and, if I am honest, a huge part of my identity.

There are many reasons that we read, both of necessity and of inclination. When we read out of necessity, we are usually gathering information. That is a neutral experience. We may or may not like what we discover but the information is what it is. When we read for pleasure, however, there is a subjective burden borne by the reader. To read a book for pleasure is to proclaim the reader’s approval of whatever is being read. Without that approval, the reader will usually abandon the reading. Therein lies my confusion—if we read a novel, if we finish it, then we must have liked it, right? But I’m not sure I liked this book.

The preface to the Sideshow, entitled “Many Years Ago,” introduces us to the carnival through the eyes of Private First Class Stanley Johnson, a young man about to be shipped off to Vietnam. Johnson wanders the carnival, watching the gamblers, the side show freaks and the strippers. As he wanders, he is portrayed as an all too human young man with both good qualities and bad. He is unquestionably a redneck, but there are limits to both his ignorance and his tolerance. He fundamentally knows good from bad, even if he is not always good himself. Private Johnson is brought to a horrific fate following his somewhat close encounter with one of the carnival’s strippers and, as readers, we are left wondering why:

Stanley felt dizzy as he stumbled beneath the starry night sky, his knees weak, his face . . .numb.” What did you . . . do . . . to me?" he whim­pered. “You . . . buck-toothed . . .” He lurched forward, the ground slipping and sliding beneath his feet, the sky spinning, the swirling stars melding together above his head. Footsteps sounded behind him, followed by wild, cackled laughter. He turned to face the noise, and fell to his knees. He felt queasy, faint. He began to swoon. Soon he found himself flat on his stomach on the ground, cool and refreshing blades of grass pressing against his face, as his eyes closed and he found himself drifting down and around, around and down where nothing could find him, nothing but his grotesque goddess, who came swirling up in a faint, hazy cloud at the edge of his vision. She touched him, and her touch was as cool as he'd thought it would be, cooler, even—cold. Cold as the razor-sharp edge of a butcher's blade, slick as the blood he soon found himself swimming in. She came to him, her and her master, with his stovepipe hat and tails, but now a longer tail—a forked tail of diamond-shaped scales ran from beneath his coat, dragging on the ground he walked upon. They swam at the edge of his consciousness, smiling, laughing and taunting as he lay before them, naked before her cold exhilarating touch, which was so much colder than he ever thought it would be, than he ever thought it could be, until she was gone, they were gone, and he opened his eyes to find day­light streaming in through the bars of the cage that confined him, patches of it painting the straw and sawdust floor he sat upon. He looked down at his hand, but he had no hand, looked at his arm but no arm was there. No hands or arms, no feet, no legs. But that was impossible. He had hands, he had arms and legs. He could see them propped up in the corner against the bars of his cage.

He opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out. But he could hear it.

He could hear it, all right.

That high pitched keening rising steadily up from the base of his throat was the only thing he could hear.

There is a lot of that in Sideshow, and that brings us back to my dilemma. I really wanted to put the book down at almost every moment that I sat reading it, but each page seduced me to read the next page and each chapter finished enticed me to read the next. Reading Sideshow is like watching the proverbial train wreck. You know you should not be enjoying it—you aren’t enjoying it, exactly, but you also aren’t looking away. You cannot help yourself.

Although Sideshow is very well written and there are a lot of “wow-I-did-not-see-that-coming” moments, those wow moments are invariably bloody, disturbing and fundamentally depressing. In the universe that Ollie has fashioned, just about everyone suffers because everyone has given offense to the universe in some way. The carnival is come to demand a reckoning, in a Day of Judgment kind of way.

After sharing the fate of Private Johnson, chapter one brings us to the present day, in which a carnival has mysteriously sprouted—seemingly from the earth—in an abandoned field outside of a small town in South Carolina. The field has an evil past, a past that I won’t share here because that would give away much of the story, but those days are long over and gone by the time the carnival arrives. The people of the town, like Private Johnson a generation before, are real people—some better than others but none perfect and some far from it. Many come from families that have lived in the town for decades, centuries even, and whose forebears committed many a crime against the black men, women and children who had lived there as slaves and in the days of Jim Crow. As it turns out, where the carnival’s patrons are concerned, the sins of the fathers are the sins of the sons and the carnival comes to town only to purge the town of those sins, even if the people who committed them have been dead for a hundred years.

Sideshow is loosely framed around the lives of a few of the residents of the town that the carnival visits and what happens to them during the one day in which the story takes place. If the story does have main characters, they are Justin Henry and Mickey Reardon, two thirteen-year-old boys that most of us would recognize as any of a number of children from our own respective pasts, perhaps even our own children or ourselves. In the course of the story, they will spy on the carnival, sneak out to attend the carnival, over-indulge at the carnival, save a lost soul at the carnival, fight a zombie, learn some unwanted but necessary truths, and grow up more than they might have expected. To share any more of their story or the stories of anyone else in Sideshow would be to give away too much. It is not giving away too much to note that like the boys are not more sympathetic characters than many of the other characters in the book, and fact that they survive the carnival (which is acknowledged on the book’s back cover) seems almost arbitrary. As a result, just as a reader I was strangely unsatisfied by their very survival.

When violence and cruelty play a part in most of the fiction that I have read, it has served to drive the story to some conclusion I could emotionally embrace. There is a point to the viciousness. In Sideshow, the violence, however redemptive or punitive or purgative it may be, is far more central than any other aspect of the story. It seems to be its own purpose. In its unchecked savagery, I can only compare it to the kind of violence that is found in books I have read about the Holocaust. The difference between Sideshow and histories of extreme human oppression is that at least when I read the histories, I do not feel that I need to enjoy what I’m reading. Learn from it, yes, but enjoy it, no.  In the case of a work of fiction, if I am not enjoying it, what drives me to continue reading it? And if I do continue reading, does that mean I condone what is in the book, however fantastic and awful it may be?

So why did I read the Sideshow? I read it because it is really well written and has a story that compelled me to keep reading even though I did not want to find out what was going to happen next. Despite the fact that I really did not enjoy the things that were happening in the story, in each moment, every small event is hugely important to one or all of the characters. There is absolutely no down time, emotionally or intellectually, at any point in the book. Not for the reader and not for the characters. I did not want to know what would happen next, but I had to know. I just couldn’t look away.

In reading Sideshow, I found as much satisfaction as I have ever found in a book because Ollie gave me a roller coaster ride of gratuitous emotion. I felt really unclean as I read it and I still feel a bit dirty now, precisely because I enjoyed it so much. At least I think I enjoyed it. I doubt I will ever read a book that has me as confused as Sideshow with respect to my own emotions. For that reason alone, William Ollie’s Sideshow is the most memorable book, and probably the best book, I have read this year.

Books mentioned in this column:
Sideshow by William Ollie (Dark Regions Press, 2010)


David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.



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