THE LAND OF LAUGHS by JONATHAN CARROLL
Today, I’d like to talk about the very gifted writer of weirdness, Jonathan Carroll, his first novel, and the art of ending stuff.
This is Jonathan Carroll (with his dog, Jack):
He isn’t what one might call a full-on horror writer in the classic sense of the term, though he is a fantasist who isn’t afraid to go really dark when the mood hits him. He is sometimes described as a magic realist writer, which is pretty apt, though he’s got his own flavor of such.
Mr. Carroll’s first novel, The Land of Laughs, is one of my all-time favorite books and I consider it a bonafide masterpiece. It involves Thomas Abbey, the somewhat immature grown son of a classic movie star, who happens to be obsessed with the late children’s writer Marshall France. He meets a fellow Marshall France superfan, Saxony Gardner, and they fall in love. The pair decide, on the spur of the moment, to travel to Galen, Missouri, where the extremely reclusive author lived and wrote. Abbey’s plan is to ask for France’s daughter’s permission to write a biography of her father. For some reason, Anna France greets this idea with open arms and even invites the couple to stay in Galen for the duration.
What follows is some major weirdness that begins with little things like Abbey’s suspicion that many of the characters from France’s books have real world doppelgängers in Galen, or the fact that his writing of the biography seems to have a strange effect on these same citizens. The dread ratchets up with each passing day, until things get REALLY out of hand.
I am trying to be purposefully vague here, so as to not give away the various dark plums that are there for the plucking in this book. Needless to say, there are many memorable moments, not the least of which involving an English Bull Terrier (see “Jack”, above) and a BIG reveal. I’ve read this book at least four times, and am always amazed at how perfectly paced and creative it is.
Jonathan Carroll is great at endings. His first several books, in fact, contain some real doozies. Their plots run the gamut of the dark fantastic–there are weird hauntings, parallel dream worlds, the reincarnated “son” of an imaginary being, a filmmaker tricked into making a particular movie by an angel, an architect hired to build a dog museum in Saudi Arabia, you know–THE WORKS. And they all have fist to the face awesome endings that just leave you going “YES!!!”. Well, me anyway.
The Land of Laughs has what I consider to be one of the all-time best wrap-ups of any genre novel I’ve ever read. The story itself ends with a bang, and then there is a short grace note that takes things even further and reveals the theme that’s been burbling under the surface the whole time. Good Gravy how I LOVE THIS BOOK!
I wish more novel writers took their endings as seriously. Without exaggeration, I’d say a good 75% of books don’t stick their landings, which is made even more annoying when they have great openings and build-ups. I’m not saying that everything needs to have a bow on it–ambiguity can be unbelievably powerful, after all. I just happen to love the afterglow of a well-realized novel and a good part of that taste is found in an ending that stays with you.
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man, and Steve King’s Pet Sematary all have endings that multiply the horror factor of what has come before tenfold (at least) and send you screaming into the night. I remember finishing each of those books with a delighted shudder.
Back to The Land of Laughs, before we say goodbye:
- Just read the damn thing. You’ll thank me later.
- Jonathan Carroll posts awesome things on his Facebook page on a pretty regular basis, in case you’re interested.
- His website is a cornucopia of goodness, and even has some stories that can be read FOR FREE!
- Which reminds me, he’s also a REALLY GREAT short story writer…
There you have it. Tune in tomorrow for another daily dose of diabolical dabblings!