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The Pilo Family Circus / Will Elliot

Underland Press / March 2009
Reviewed by: Blu Gilliand

Full disclosure time: I hate clowns. Loathe them. Detest them with every fiber of my being. They do not make me laugh. They make me nervous. At times, they scare the living you-know-what out of me.

I can trace this utter contempt for clowns back to an extremely vivid dream I had at the age of five or six – yes, vivid enough to remember it some thirty-odd years later. In the dream, a set of three clown faces that my mother had hung on my bedroom wall floated free of their hooks, turned a horrifying luminescent green, and spun around and around above my face as I lay terror-stricken in bed. They were screaming with laughter, or maybe just screaming – it didn’t matter. I woke the whole house up, and there was no doubt that I was screaming, not laughing. I demanded the faces be removed from my wall and buried in a drawer.

Since then, me and clowns, we just don’t get along.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked up the new release from Underland Press, The Pilo Family Circus. And the further I got into the story about young, unfortunate Jamie and his unwilling recruitment into the world of carnival clowns, the more my hesitation was justified. The clowns in Pilo are the kind of clowns you don’t want handing out balloons at your child’s birthday party; they are unbalanced, unpredictable and hideously, murderously insane.

In fact, the whole Pilo Family Circus, from the acrobats to the freaks to the feuding Pilo brothers themselves, is cut from the cloth of nightmares. And at the center of it all is Jamie, who suddenly finds himself at the mercy of his own darker side every time he puts on the carnival’s special clown makeup.

Unlike lots of boys who dreamed of joining the circus, Jamie had few dreams at all. Drifting through life in a dead-end job, he becomes embroiled in the Pilos’ insanity when, walking home from work one night, he observes a couple of clowns acting erratically. When he spies a bag of mysterious powder dropped by one of the clowns, he snags it, thinking he’s maybe found some drugs he can sell. But the powder isn’t drugs; it isn’t anything Jamie’s ever seen before, and when he accidentally ingests a tiny amount of it, the clowns begin to stalk him.

Eventually Jamie and one of his roommates find themselves unwitting guests of the Pilos. Steve works cleanup for the freaks, a job he slowly warms to, while Jamie becomes JJ the Clown. Problem is, the face paint isn’t your normal, store-bought variety – when he puts it on, the real Jamie goes away, and JJ takes over completely. JJ is everything Jamie is not – cunning, ambitious, and mean. And he’d like nothing more than to squash the dwindling spark of Jamie once and for all.

Will Elliot’s novel took home a shelf-full of Australian literary awards upon its original Australian release, and it’s easy to see why. Elliot is looking to do more than throw greasepaint on a psychotic and have him stalk around with an ax. He uses the clowns to examine how we all have dual natures, one we allow to dominate and another that we suppress. So what happens if our suppressed side finds a way to take control? And what happens if, deep down, we like it that way?

Filled with intriguing characters, a page-turner of a plot, and a sense of the surreal so vivid it’ll make your head swim, The Pilo Family Circus marks the second straight home run for fledgling Underland Press.

Purchase The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliot.

Posted on Saturday, April 11, 2009 at 08:40AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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