Bread and Circuses

The circus is in town.
The carnival has arrived.
There will be bright lights, and loud noises, and things to frighten, and things to amaze. There will be food, and music, and people will laugh loudly and press close to you. Your belly will be full, and you won’t want to blink, because the instant of darkness when you close your eyes would be too much of an interruption.
The spectacle is waiting.

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The Night Circus: A book about the limitations of magic; a book about pressing against those limitations. A gorgeously written circus that arrives without warning, that embraces the audience instead of dazzling them. A circus that is vivid and immediate, and a little more frightening than some, and a little less grotesque than most. A love story, to undergird the fact that all of it is impossibly more immediate and delicate than should be possible. Prose as lush as a feathered headdress. Violins instead of calliope, and gentle murmurs instead of carnival barkers. A circus that is a secret, a promise, and a warning, all in one.

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In times of trouble, we are fascinated by circuses. The colors and the movement pull our eyes. The performers, weightless and smiling and beckoning, demand every inch of our attention. We want to lean forward in our chairs, our mouths full of sweet and salt and fat. We want to be amazed. We want to be told that we are amazed, and we want to agree. Yes, indeed, that is like nothing we’ve ever imagined. Yes, indeed, it is marvelous.
It makes sense, then, that the circus is the perfect setting for a story straddling the boundaries of magic and reality. We are fascinated by the intersection between spectacle and adventure. We long to understand the real magic that surely lies behind the illusion and grandeur of the performance. We love the suspension of disbelief, the collective gasp when we all think that maybe the lion isn’t tame, maybe the acrobat will fall, maybe that woman really can breathe fire.
And we deserve it, don’t we? We work hard. We are tired. We deserve a night of distraction, of simple joy. We deserve to see people who perform like nothing we’ve ever known—people who have a connection to some monstrous, gorgeous kind of otherness. We deserve to see what they can do. We deserve to be overwhelmed by joy, for once, instead of what usually overwhelms us. Instead of all the things we need, for one night—just one night—to forget.

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The Gracekeepers: An examination of the things we look at, and the things we look away from. Death and spectacle, love and loneliness, tradition and transition. Two young women who are overwhelmed and cannot look away, must not look away; two young women who are clinging to their lives with both hands. A circus and a graveyard, on and under the water, both touchstones for people who have avoided the overwhelming for too long. A circus story about unfairness, the unavoidable consequences of falling, and the loss of balance.

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It’s normal to fantasize about making it permanent. It’s impossible not to fantasize about making it permanent. An evening spent apart from the awful parts of the day, looking at as much as possible, instead of perpetually finding reasons to look away. The bright lights, the flashing colors, the sequins, the music. It’s impossible not to wish every night could feel the way it does when we’re at the circus.
But we know, on some level, that it can’t always feel that way. We know that there is darkness at the edges of the spotlight.
These are the stories we write about circuses. We write stories about what we imagine undergirds the magic. We write horrors that match the wonder we feel when we lose ourselves at the circus, because when we leave the striped silk and see the darkness outside, we recognize that we were drawn in, and we are afraid. We realize that we forgot about the things we were supposed to be worried about. And we wonder what the circus has to gain from making us forget. We wonder what kind of monsters would draw us in like that.

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Caraval: The story of a girl who is drawn in, in spite of every warning. She knows that the carnival—no, not a carnival, an experience—is an illusion, a trick, a trap. But, like us, she leans forward in her chair. She knows that the magic can’t be real, but she also can’t help wondering: what if it is? And once we allow ourselves to wonder if the magic is real, it’s impossible to resist the fantasy. We are so hungry for it to be real that we will allow it to become real, even if it hurts us. Even if it changes us. Even if we lose ourselves. Caraval is the story of that loss, and it demands to know: is the loss worth it?

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What does the circus stand to gain from our temporarily lost grip on reality?
The answer, of course, is that the circus gains nothing but our money. Our suspicion is entirely misdirected. The real monsters are the things that do benefit from our evening away.  We suspend our disbelief: we are attending to things we shouldn’t believe in, and we are avoiding the things that we don’t want to believe in. Panem et circenses. Our bellies are full and our eyes are dazzled, so we are not paying attention to the horrors in the dark. And the horrors like it that way.
But we will not think of those things. Not for a few hours. Not while the lights are bright, not while the music is loud, not while there are amazing things to see.
Don’t worry about the horror.
Don’t worry.
The circus is here.

What circus stories have enchanted you? 

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